President Trump’s Tuesday tweet on North Korea typifies his cluelessness about international politics, in ways both subtler and more alarming than usual:
While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!
That afternoon, on the eve of a long-scheduled meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Chinese counterpart, “senior officials” told a New York Times reporter that they were “still trying to gauge the meaning of the president’s tweet.” It’s a disturbing sign, though all too normal in this administration, that those entrusted with delicate diplomacy have to parse their marching orders from the sound and fury of the boss’s random outbursts.
So let’s parse this tweet for clues of what it might reveal about the mindset and intentions of the most powerful man in the Western world.
First, it reveals that Trump may be the easiest mark in presidential history, at least for foreign leaders, and particularly authoritarian ones, who can play him without having to worry about confusing their own constituents. Ever since his chocolate cake summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, Trump—who, during the 2016 campaign, had denounced China for raping America and stealing our resources—has embraced the Chinese president as “a terrific person” and a fount of geopolitical wisdom. Trump thanks Xi more heartily than he has ever thanked the leader of any NATO ally—which would be bad enough if Xi really has “tried” to solve the Pyongyang problem, but he hasn’t.
The Chinese leaders have certainly grown weary of Kim Jong-un, the young North Korean tyrant, with his nuclear provocations, his incessant missile tests, and his (even by Kim family standards) reckless rhetoric. As the country’s largest ally and trading partner, the Chinese certainly could put the screws to Kim’s ambitions and probably rouse the forces to oust him from power, if they wanted to—but that’s just it: Ultimately they don’t want to. Toppling the regime—and thus ending not only the dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its creation after World War II but also the mythic legitimacy that has sustained it—would unleash internal chaos, a flood of refugees across China’s scantly populated eastern border, and a humanitarian crisis, none of which Beijing could manage. It would also likely expand the reach of the South Korean government across the entire peninsula, thus putting an armed ally of the United States—and probably U.S. troops—at the edge of Chinese territory.
Like his father and grandfather who sat on the throne before him, Kim well understands China’s strategic interest in his survival and ably plays the region’s large powers against each other. Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, referred to North Korea’s position as “a shrimp among whales.” He and his son, Kim Jong-il, devised a strategy to turn their weakness into strength, and the latest scion, Kim Jong-un, has extended their legacy, if more eccentrically.
Trump’s tweet goes on to say that Xi’s effort “has not worked out.” It’s unclear what he means, but he is probably referring to the fate of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American college student who was arrested in January 2016 for stealing a North Korean propaganda poster during a brief holiday visit and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Earlier this month, Warmbier was returned to the United States after falling into a coma. He died on Monday, the day before Trump’s tweet.
This is a horrific tale, a clear reflection of the Kim regime’s savagery (though hardly a surprise), deserving of strong U.S. retaliation in the form of further sanctions, trade embargoes, banking restrictions, travel bans on more North Korean officials, and perhaps additional steps of isolation and skullduggery. But it is premature to say, as Trump ambiguously did in his tweet, “it has not worked out.” Barely two months have passed since his meeting with Xi at Mar-a-Lago. President Obama’s policy toward North Korea, which he called “strategic patience,” was derided by some as a euphemism for kicking the can down the road, and maybe, to some extent, it was. But it wasn’t very different from old-fashioned “containment” (it could have also been called “containment when there isn’t much else you can do right now”), and history teaches us that containment sometimes works.
But the question might be worth exploring more deeply. When Trump writes “it has not worked out,” what specifically does he mean by “it”? Does he mean Xi’s “efforts … to help with North Korea”? Or the whole concept of applying pressure on North Korea? And pressure to do what—to dismantle its nuclear program, simply freeze it, stop testing missiles, oust Kim from power? What is the goal here? What might be signs of progress toward the goal? What might be ways of getting from here to there? Or if there aren’t any ways, what to do next?
This last question is the gulper. Some see Trump’s fatalistic final words—“At least I know China tried!”—as a signal that the United States will now take over. After all, in an interview with the Financial Times shortly before his April meeting with Xi, Trump said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” How does he plan to do that?
It’s a good bet that Trump has by now asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis for military options “to solve North Korea.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff have reams of such options, which they update periodically, for all kinds of contingencies, including this one. No doubt Mattis will eloquently brief these options to the president, if he hasn’t done so already, along with the myriad reasons why none of the options is likely to end well.
Trump is hardly the first president to go down this road. Richard Nixon asked for such options after the North Koreans shot down an EC-121 early warning plane. Lyndon B. Johnson asked for such options after they captured the Pueblo spy ship. Bill Clinton asked for such options when they prepared to convert fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor into weapons-grade plutonium. (That crisis ended with an accord that locked up the rods, under international monitoring.) George W. Bush asked for such options when they seemed to be evading Clinton’s accord. Bush, prodded by Vice President Dick Cheney, was so confident that North Korea would crumble under pressure—especially after the display of U.S. armed might in defeating the Iraqi army and ousting Saddam Hussein from power—that he abrogated Clinton’s accord and pulled out of follow-up negotiations. As Cheney put it, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”
But none of the presidents pursued these options—even Bush pulled back from the trigger after deploying a massive armada of air and sea power to within striking range of North Korea—because they saw that all the options led to disaster. Even before the North Koreans built a small arsenal of nuclear weapons (they did that under Bush and Cheney’s watch), they had amassed an enormous array of artillery rockets, hundreds of them infused with chemical weapons, all of them within range of Seoul—the capital of South Korea, just 35 miles south of the border—and many within range of Japan and of American troops in the region. Many of these rockets were hidden underground or deployed on the back side of mountains and would thus be hard to hit even in a massive American pre-emptive strike. If some of them survived, and if Kim or some designated successor struck back, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of allied soldiers and civilians would die.
The Kim family has long known this, too. They well understand the concept of deterrence as it applies to small powers: Carry some big sticks and talk loudly. Over the decades, it has worked.
As Kim Jong-un moves toward longer-range missiles capable of carrying miniaturized nuclear weapons, North Korea could soon pose a new sort of threat. Does it mean that, once he obtains such an arsenal, he will launch a nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or California? Almost certainly not. The United States still has a few thousand nukes, which could obliterate Kim’s kingdom. Kim may be erratic, but he’s not suicidal; in fact, his weirdest behavior—like that of his father and grandfather—is geared toward ensuring the survival of his regime and himself. But the further he goes down the nuclear road, the more immune he will become to outside pressure—and, in a crisis, war can erupt from misunderstandings, mixed signals, and desperate needs to demonstrate “credibility.”
In the long run, the only way to “solve North Korea” is probably regime change. But the United States can’t be the agent of this change. First, we’re not very good at it. Second, we have no standing or even much presence in North Korea. Third, it’s a big place; no one could possibly want to station a million U.S. troops in North Korea for decades to come. China will have to be the main actor, and, for reasons already discussed, Beijing is reluctant to step into that role. North Koreans themselves will have to take the lead, and, given Kim’s efficiency at quashing the slightest hint of dissent or disloyalty, this seems unlikely for now.
In the short run, the only course open is to negotiate—not right away, certainly not in the wake of Warmbier’s death, but at some point. We do have an interest in halting North Korea’s march to a larger, longer-range nuclear arsenal. We do have an interest in simply calming the tensions of the region. So do China, South Korea, and Japan. North Korea has been lured to the tables before through shrewd combinations of threats and rewards. Clinton’s accord stands as a possible model; it even halted Pyongyang’s drive to a nuclear weapon for eight years.
But this is a delicate matter. How to instill Kim’s confidence to come to the tables in the short run, while setting the stage for his toppling in the long run? This requires shrewd and subtle statesmanship, conducted (or at least advised) by specialists with a deep knowledge of the territory and the history. It also requires patience; this will take longer than two months, and it might not work after two years. And one thing that will get in the way, as much as any obstruction, is a president who erupts before he (or anyone else in his Cabinet) thinks.