War Stories

Trump’s North Korea Strategy Is an Incoherent Mess

And Kim is gaining the upper hand.

John Bolton, sitting in off to the side and behind Donald Trump, adjusts his glasses as Trump speaks.
National Security Adviser John Bolton listens to President Donald Trump talk to reporters during a meeting of his Cabinet at the White House Feb. 12.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The chaos inside Donald Trump’s White House has hit a new peak, and we don’t need Maggie Haberman, Bob Woodward, or their bevy of unnamed sources to uncover it. No, it’s out in the open, in the main players’ own words.

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department tweeted the following:

National Security Adviser John Bolton then tweeted, approvingly:

But then, on Friday morning, Trump tweeted this reversal:

Far from the first time, the world—friends, foes, and bemused or appalled observers—must be wondering: WTF?!

One former U.S. official who has worked on Korean issues emailed me after I sent him Trump’s tweet for comment (at the time, neither of us had seen the earlier tweets by Bolton and the Treasury):

Good Lord. His national security team must be apoplectic. Those sanctions would only have been approved after thorough vetting through the NSC, State, DoD, and the Intelligence Community. Bolton, Pompeo and Mnuchin would all have known and approved. I would be stunned if Bolton didn’t tell Trump first. Either he told him and Trump didn’t understand … or maybe he tried to slip it past him?

To make matters worse, these mixed signals are going out just as Kim Jong-un is demonstrating that he knows how to play a wicked long game. Most leaders, even most dictators, would have been ousted from power after failing so miserably at last month’s summit in Hanoi. Kim expected Trump to lift all sanctions against North Korea and to acknowledge its status as a nuclear power—but, instead, came home empty-handed. And yet, four weeks later, Kim has regained the upper hand in the complex politics of his relations with South Korea and the United States.

Still, there’s huge risk in Kim’s stratagems, especially when he’s up against a player as voluble as Trump, whose unpredictability and pressures—on display in Friday’s tweet, in unusually bizarre form—he clearly doesn’t fully understand.

On Thursday, in his latest move of this high-stakes game, Kim pulled out his staff from the liaison office that he and South Korean President Moon Jae-in had agreed to set up near the two countries’ borders, in their own seemingly historic summit last April.

Moon, an ardent advocate of closer ties with the North, has touted the liaison office as a political and personal triumph. It was Moon who engineered the summits with Kim—both his own and Trump’s—and as a result, his stake in the new détente’s success is as deep as anyone’s. He launched the campaign in the summer of 2017 after Trump threatened to pummel North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to Kim’s repeated tests of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons—a duel that Moon (and others) feared would escalate to war on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim and his spokespeople have blamed Trump for the debacle in Hanoi—a ploy lent some credence by the fact that Trump was the one who walked out of the talks—and, so, have portrayed their own walkout from the liaison office as a protest of resumed U.S. hostility.

Moon may not quite buy Kim’s deflection of blame, but he needs peace, desperately wants warmer relations with the North, and doesn’t trust Trump to make things right, mainly because Trump has shown such indifference—at times hostility—to the U.S.–South Korean alliance.

That being the case, in order to lure back Kim’s minions, so the two Koreas can keep pursing the projects that they’d planned, Moon may pull away from Washington’s orbit.

Splitting off South Korea from the United States has been the main goal of North Korean foreign policy since the nation was created shortly after the Second World War. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the nation’s revolutionary founder and its “Great Leader” until his death in 1994, likened his tiny, impoverished country to a “shrimp among whales.” There are two ways a shrimp can thrive in a sea surrounded by whales: bulk up or play the whales off one another. Kim’s grandfather and father—Kim Jong-il, the nation’s second leader—were masters at the latter game; the current occupant of the throne is following their pattern, fortified by his possession of a small atomic arsenal, the likes of which his forebears had only dreamed of.

Meanwhile, in his overrule-by-tweet of his Cabinet’s upping of sanctions, Trump has revealed not only that he doesn’t know how to govern (this much is hardly new) but also that he doesn’t get what game Kim is playing.

Topping it all, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained Trump’s reversal as follows: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

Kim, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Bashar al-Assad—the whole lot of America’s adversaries—must be shaking their heads, laughing, and wondering what lucky stars have aligned to give them an American president as foolish as this one.

But here’s the danger in trying to put one over on a delusional narcissist: He might suddenly realize he’s been taken for a ride and respond in anger.

A second bit of news should make us a bit more nervous still. At a recent closed-door speech in Seoul, Andrew Kim, former chief of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, said that the Hanoi summit broke up, in part, because Kim Jong-un explained that “denuclearization” meant dismantling not just North Korea’s nuclear weapons but also all of the United States’ nuclear-capable weapons in the region. This would have entailed withdrawing aircraft and barring submarines from Guam and Hawaii.

This North Korean definition of the term has been known for at least six months. Trump must have heard it from his intelligence briefers. The fact that he went ahead with a summit, anyway, is appalling. But here’s what’s more alarming: If Kim thought that any American president—even Trump—would have accepted such terms, essentially forfeiting such major strategic assets in the Pacific, then he doesn’t understand U.S. politics. And if he doesn’t understand U.S. politics, on top of miscalculating Trump’s psychology, then he might take his rhetorical threats and dares a step too far.

In other words, Kim’s pullout from the liaison office, which was meant to aggravate tensions between Seoul and Washington, could backfire. If he goes a step further and resumes testing missiles, as the recent repair of North Korean launch pads suggests he might, Trump could lash out; we might find ourselves zapped back to the “fire and fury” days of August 2017 and this time, it might be hard for Kim to turn the peace charm back on: The pivot might strain credulity, might aggravate Trump’s sense of betrayal and humiliation, might make him feel like a cuckold (“We fell in love,” Trump cooed at a rally shortly after their first summit in Singapore last June); that’s a feeling Trump has never felt before, and who knows how he might lash out?

Foreign policy is hard. Formulating policy toward a cauldron of deceit like North Korea takes particularly subtle finesse, deep learning, and steady nerves. Kim knows exactly what he wants; Trump has no idea what he wants; and they deeply misunderstand each other—their motives, their limits, and their breaking points. The combination makes for a dangerous situation.