War Stories

We Now Return to Your Regularly Scheduled Nuclear Crisis

The Olympics are over, and the high-stakes Trump-Kim showdown is no closer to resolution.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claps with military officers at the Strategic Force Command of the Korean People’s Army in an unknown location in North Korea in this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on August 15.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claps with military officers at the Strategic Force Command of the Korean People’s Army in an unknown location in North Korea in this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on August 15. KCNA/via REUTERS

The Winter Games in South Korea are over, so the winter-is-coming games now resume. I refer, of course, to the storm clouds of bluff, brawn, and blind global terror swirling around the faceoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un and the stupefyingly real chance that it could spark a nuclear war.

Trump’s latest maneuver came late last week, after he imposed new sanctions on North Korea and on companies that do business with the regime. “If the sanctions don’t work,” he said at a joint news conference with the Australian prime minister on Friday, “we’ll have to go to phase two. Phase two may be a very rough thing. Maybe very, very unfortunate for the world. But hopefully the sanctions will work.”

It might have been useful if Trump had spelled out what it means for the sanctions to “work”—that is, what the North Koreans need to do to avoid the dreaded phase two. Strategic ambiguity is one thing, and sometimes has its place in international discourse; vague threats rarely bear fruit and usually just spawn confusion and aggravate tensions.

One job of diplomats is to clean up such messes and to clarify, in backroom whispers, a president’s—particularly this president’s—random eruptions. But our nation is shedding its diplomats by the week, especially those with expertise in Asia, which Trump’s foreign policy triumvirate—Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster—utterly lacks.

The latest casualty is Joseph Yun, a 30-year veteran of the foreign service and the State Department’s point of contact for back-channel talks with North Korea. Yun has been the main advocate for solving the problem through diplomacy, not military action.

His departure follows, by just one month, the scuttling of Victor Cha as the prospective ambassador to South Korea. Cha, who was President George W. Bush’s top adviser on North Korea, had raised objections to the growing support within Trump’s White House for pre-emptive military strikes against Kim’s regime.

In other words, Trump is courting a major crisis with North Korea with no advisers who’ve had experience at dealing with North Koreans. Old hands like Yun and Cha have acquired years of familiarity with the Kim dynasty’s negotiating style; they know what to take seriously and what to dismiss as gruff. They’ve also long thought through the military options, which Trump and his White House staff are now mulling, and concluded that those roads lead to likely catastrophe. (Colonels and generals in the Pentagon long ago reached the same verdict; the “bloody nose” option—the idea of socking Kim’s regime with a punch that stuns him into submission without destroying very much—isn’t one that many officers take seriously.)

Now come reports that North Korea might be willing to hold talks with the United States and South Korea. On the one hand, such overtures should be received with a cocked eyebrow; even South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is desperate for a peaceful way out of the crisis, realizes that Kim’s main motive is to drive a wedge between Seoul, South Korea, and Washington, splintering their military alliance. For that reason, Moon politely declined an invitation, offered in person by Kim’s sister during the Olympics, for him to travel to Pyongyang, North Korea, for talks. On the other hand, given that there are no good military options, there can’t be much harm in talking, as long as all eyes are wide open.

“There are many reasons to have talks,” Kurt Campbell, CEO of the Asia Group and a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in a phone conversation. “Everybody in Asia expects these talks to happen, so it’s important for us to try to make them happen. Whether or not they accomplish anything as far as North Korean nuclear weapons are concerned, they’ll help cement our alliances, help weave the U.S. into the geopolitical fabric of Asia.”

But who’s going to do the talking on our side? There’s no one left who’s been there before. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is so divided on the main issues that those officials who do show up at the table will arrive with uncertain guidance, unless someone hammers together a basic strategy in the meantime—and there’s no sign of that happening any time soon.

The games of war whooping began in August, when Trump warned that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States” or it would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” It is standard practice for presidents to tell foes that they’ll meet fire and fury (though not in such colorful language) if they dare attack the United States or its homeland. But it is something else to promise the unleashing of cataclysmic powers if a foe merely makes threats against us—whether through belligerent statements or, say, the testing of a long-range missile.

The Kim dynasty—Pyongyang’s current leader as well as his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-Sung—have long indulged in vituperative verbiage. It’s an essential ingredient in their strategy of dealing with the fact that North Korea (as the country’s first president, Kim Il-sung, put it) is a “shrimp among whales”—a small, poor country in a region of rich giants. Act crazy, brandish a few weapons, play the larger powers off one another—and sometimes you’ll get what you need: food aid, trade, energy assistance, deterrence against an enemy invasion. Now that the current Kim actually has some nuclear weapons, he can play this card with more potency.

But no one has ever seen an American president—who shouldn’t need to talk loudly about the size of his missiles—matching this brand of rhetoric. What to make of it? Trump may be trying out Richard Nixon’s “madman theory.” When Nixon first came to office, he told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to go to the Paris peace talks and tell the North Vietnamese negotiators that Nixon’s crazy, he’s particularly insane about communism, and he has his finger on the nuclear button. Ho Chi Minh, he assured Kissinger, will sign a peace deal in a matter of days. The trick didn’t work, perhaps because the North Vietnamese didn’t believe Nixon was that crazy; they knew he was bluffing.

But how does the madman theory work if the president really is a madman, or seems to be? It might have some effect. But to the extent it does, the outcome depends on what the madman puts on the table as an alternative to crazy war—it depends on the rewards as well as the punishments. If Trump won’t hold talks unless North Korea dismantles its nuclear machine as a precondition, then the talks aren’t going to happen. The nukes are Kim’s only asset, his only bargaining chip. Why should he give them up at the start—or at any point in the talks, unless he’s given something amazingly tempting in exchange?

In fact, Trump’s reckless talk about “fire and fury” probably makes Kim more determined to hang on to his nukes. He’s not an idiot. He looks around the world. Saddam Hussein dismantled his nascent WMD program after the first Gulf War; he’s dead. Muammar Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program; he’s dead. The Iranians agreed to give up their nukes, international inspectors affirm that they’re in compliance with the deal—and yet Trump wants to scuttle it. Under the circumstances, if the most rational person in the world were leader of North Korea, he or she would assemble a decent-size nuclear arsenal as quickly as possible.

If Trump is bluffing about war, it’s quite the gamble. What if Kim calls the bluff—doesn’t agree to dismantle his nukes, maybe test launch an intercontinental ballistic missile  or two? Will Trump really unleash fire and fury? Will he back down and thus risk appearing weak (his deepest fear)? We are all teetering on a tightrope, and the managers of the circus are clowns.