North Korea’s latest threat—to resume missile tests if the United States and South Korea proceed with long-scheduled joint military exercises in the coming weeks—confirms that Kim Jong-un’s real goals, in his diplomacy with President Donald Trump, are to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul and foment anxiety among America’s allies in the region.
Kim may also be testing how far he can go in dominating his relationship with Trump—whether he can manipulate Trump into valuing their putative friendship (and the president’s desperate desire for a triumphant peace treaty) over the health of long-standing U.S. alliances (which Trump has never valued much to begin with).
But Kim is playing a dangerous game. To every objection about the North Koreans’ recalcitrance—their continued production of missiles and nuclear material, refusal to itemize their nuclear holdings or even to define “de-nuclearization,” and refusal to negotiate about much of anything—Trump has always countered that the important thing is that they’ve stopped testing.
In one sense, Trump is right. The North Koreans have conducted enough missile and nuclear tests up through 2017 to deter an attack by its adversaries, but not enough to count on success in launching a first strike. If the big worry is that Kim might launch a nuclear-tipped missile at South Korea, Japan, or the West Coast of the United States, he has a long way to go—and arguably, may never get there without more tests. (The U.S. military tests an intercontinental ballistic missiles 20 times before declaring it “operational.”)
However, if Kim does go ahead and resume testing even just one missile or one nuclear device, Trump’s assurances—and his self-proclaimed reputation as a shrewd deal-maker and possible peacemaker—go down the drain. If he then infers that Kim has been taking him for a ride (as some of his critics and advisers have contended), Trump might feel a massive cringe of embarrassment and betrayal, and we all might be thrown back into the “fire and fury” standoff of 2017.
On the other hand, if Trump succumbs to Kim’s threat and cancels the upcoming military exercise, he might fear being seen as weak—and start suspecting Kim’s motives, with the onset of deadly cringes not far behind. Or he could simply give in, shrugging off U.S. allies in the Pacific—and thus strengthening not only North Korea but also China and perhaps pushing Japan into building its own nuclear arsenal, which it is technologically capable of doing.
At the first Trump-Kim summit, in Singapore in June 2018, Trump canceled that year’s autumn military exercises with South Korea—in exchange for no tangible concessions from North Korea. U.S., South Korean, and Japanese military officers were alarmed, but many wrote it off as a possibly fruitful “confidence-building measure.” However, some officers say calling off this autumn’s exercise, which would mean going two years without joint training drills, could start eroding military readiness and competence. And it could make Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as other U.S. allies, nervous about Washington’s security commitments, broadly speaking.
This is Kim’s intent, and everybody—except possibly Trump—knows it.
In any case, even if Trump weren’t so gaga over Kim and blind (or possibly indifferent) to his dark side, he would be facing a genuine dilemma. On the one hand, North Korea’s nuclear and missile moratorium—which Kim has been observing since he and South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed a declaration in April 2018—is an unequivocally good thing. If he and Trump were to agree on a freeze as a first step toward gradual step-by-step progression of North Korean arms reductions and U.S. economic aid, that too would be a good thing. But if the freeze were to come at the cost of severely weakening of U.S. alliances, that would pose its own sets of risks—unnecessary ones, at that.
Kim is playing a shrewd game of balancing the large powers around him and playing them off one another. Since the dismal ending of his second summit with Trump, in Hanoi this past February, he has struck or renewed relationships with China and Russia, deepened ties with Moon (who greatly values them), and watched with some glee as South Korea and Japan have moved closer toward a trade war with each other. (The last is a development that the Trump administration has only recently noticed.)
At this point, Trump doesn’t even have a game, other than trusting his great friendship with Kim, which is (finally) coming to seem a bit of a ruse. Faced with such dilemmas, most presidents assemble the National Security Council, consult with allies, devise a negotiating strategy, and monitor its unfolding closely. Trump’s NSC is dysfunctional, dominated by national security adviser John Bolton, who—Trump has only just begun to realize—wants tension and war; he has lousy relations with the allies; and the negotiations with North Korea are stalled (because Trump has no strategy and because Kim believes he can get more from one-on-one summits with Trump).
North Korea—and for that matter, most of the world—is pursuing its national security interests in ways that are, in some cases, in conflict with our own. The United States is stuck in a holding pattern, with our pilot unaware of where he’s going, convinced the skies are sunny, and dismissive of the storm clouds ahead.