Understanding the current iteration of the two-decade long North Korean crisis is not easy. It is, for what of a better word, complicated. Furthermore, the fact is that it has finally imploded while Donald Trump is President. “Of all the presidents in all the world, why did you have to start a North Korean crisis with him...?” This is not an administration that lends itself to level analysis. And nor is the topic, for that matter. Initially, there was much noise about Trump’s mishandling of the situation, with many western media outlets implying – if not outright assigning – responsibility to him for the crisis. “Trump’s Latest North Korea could have "apocalyptic" consequences” said the Huffington Post. Salon.com warned of “Right-wing media” beating the war drums on North Korea, and Politico warned us that “Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric plays into North Korea’s hands”, while simultaneously reassuring us that Trump’s North Korea strategy was much like Obama’s (because it relied on sanctions and pressure).
To make matters even more confusing, North Korean rhetoric and negotiation style are extreme versions of those found in the West. Everything is impossible, until suddenly it is not. Nothing is possible, until the "Dear Leader" says it is. Every promise is as good as it needs to be and no further. North Korea’s negotiating tactics, as best illustrated by Scott Snyder in his notable work, "Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior tactics", are often designed to keep North Korea’s larger opponent off-balance and second-guessing their objectives. Ambiguity is a friend to North Korean diplomats, clarity the enemy. Rather than searching for an acceptable position, maximalist demands are usually trialled at the start of negotiations, both to test the opponent and to acquire the best-possible returns. Perhaps with some instinctive feel for this, Trump has brought an interesting strategy to bear.
His starting position was one of weakness, inherited from two terms of the Obama Presidency. In the wake of the break-down of the 6th iteration of the 6 Party talks in 2007, American strategy had hit a brick wall over North Korea’s insistence of continuing missile tests in the wake of the "Leap Year Agreement" (though poorly disguised as a satellite launch). The breakdown caused by the North Korea rejection of stringent verification protocols was, for the US, avoidable. Given North Korea’s revisionist history, its history of secrecy and denials of a nuclear programme in the early 90s, its development of a parallel nuclear programme – while negotiating generous terms from the US to disable its plutonium nuclear programme – have destroyed most goodwill and trust for the US.
Because they have bought the same North Korean horse so many times, US diplomats have hardened their stance to “Don’t trust, definitely verify”. As Nicolas Eberstadt and many other North Korea experts have maintained, the drivers in North Korea’s nuclear programme, its adherence to international conventions and norms, are all at the mercy of its vagaries of its domestic Stalinist system. Broadly similar to Orwell’s obscene state in 1984, Pyongyang really believes that 2+2 can equal five if the Dear Leader says so If Kim Jung Un says it was the Americans who started the Korean War, or who broke promises in negotiations, who is to question him? The state needs a permanent enemy.
No matter what his campaign foreign policy was, Trump was swiftly informed that North Korea was going to be his primary crisis by the out-going president at the Oval Office. When one views those photographs of the two men sitting awkwardly by each other, one wonders if the tension wasn’t just over ideological differences but in fact over North Korea. Trump faced an extremely unfavourable situation from the outset. Unlike previous administrations, which could sit back and hope that time would disable the regime, it was clear that now time was on Pyongyang’s side. Instead of failing over its economic contradictions, it was a hair from being able to strike the American mainland with nuclear weapons. In contrast, time suddenly seemed scarce for American diplomats. Domestic pressure was building from within the Department of Defence and Congress for the administration to do something. For those who counselled the president to “Just live with a North Korea with nukes”, it was not clear that Pyongyang had built them to defend itself or to deter the US from defending its South Korean ally. To top it all off, North Korean diplomats told two former US government officials – Bruce Klingner and Sue Mi Terry – that they refused to negotiate denuclearisation. The only thing that would get them to the table was (a) a peace treaty, followed by (b) the removal of US troops from what Pyongyang typically refers to as the "puppet state" South Korea.
Despite a bad hand, the Trump strategy has a fairly simple logic to it. Get the North Koreans back to the table negotiating denuclearisation. Looking at the problem through the eyes of a business mogul, Trump quickly realised that the primary weakness of the North Korean state is its economic system. By even its own measures, the Government Distribution Network that is supposed to supply North Koreans with food has broken down. Furthermore, its economic model is based on a 1930s Stalinist heavy-industry model, which is neither practical nor relevant to the region’s dynamic economies. Instead, North Korea is dependent on China for 90 per cent of its economic activity, through trade, development aid, and energy subsidies. Take away China and North Korea cannot exist. This is and remains the only source of real pressure on North Korea, no matter what anyone else says. Carrots and sticks are fundamentally just part of the game for Pyongyang. But economic activity? Energy? Those are the fundamentals that allow North Korea to play the game at all.
Trump’s realisation that his North Korea problem was really a China problem was most likely a personally satisfying moment. It is no secret that he is the first president in three decades to actually seek to redress what he viewed as an unbalanced economic relationship, and break an unwritten contract whereby the US off-shores it’s manufacturing in return for Chinese purchases of US debt and the hopes of a “responsible stakeholder” that supports the US order. Indeed, he is the first president to put the Sino-US relationship on the table in order to deal with the North Korea issue. Freed from this self-imposed constraint, the administration has developed a three-pronged strategy simply to get North Korea back to the table. The first prong is to apply deep pressure on China – and to a lesser extent, Russia – to uphold previous generations of sanctions and to disable the economic support. The second prong has been to use the threat of military action as a destabiliser, and pressure point, matching the stakes imposed by Pyongyang’s growing ICBM programme. It should be noted that the 7th Fleet’s presence is not necessarily even for Pyongyang’s benefit, but for Beijing’s. The third prong was to galvanise the international community in the United Nations, and negotiate increasingly stringent sanctions – targeting energy and other sources of economic support.
All of this has been, mind you, simply to get the North Koreans back to the negotiating table. Doubtless, once Pyongyang has accepted that it has a negotiating partner in Washington that is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the negotiating table, including going to war, it may accede to sitting down again. After all, this is a president who has offered the hardest sticks in living memory. Ironically, it is Trump’s dismissal of human rights and values that might actually work in his favour. The problem for any dictator – as Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein discovered – all bets are off when it comes to those issues. Promises will not be kept, guarantees will not last any severe human rights situation. For a country that comes out somewhere near the bottom of the global list, this is likely to be a consideration. The main problem is that if – after all the economic sanctions and pressure on regional foes and allies – Trump does manage to get Pyongyang back to the table, what then? Start anew? Try and return to the "Six Party Talks" as they were in 2006, prior them breaking down? Or perhaps do a primarily bilateral deal in which Washington becomes Pyongyang’s new provider of aid and subsistence? One could sugar coat this with all sorts of noise about avoiding nuclear war, but one senses any such deal would have as much longevity as the Agreed Framework in 1994 – that’s to say, none.
In all of this, both Trump’s strategy and his tactical approach actually make him look far more like a Chinese leader than an American one. His use of the threat of military coercion to destabilise his opponents, his willingness to use all elements of comprehensive national power to achieve his goals, his use of economic and political pressure, and his need for face, all seem more Chinese than traditionally American. A number of observers – this one included – celebrated Barack Obama as America’s first Asian president. But perhaps in his strict Harvard legalistic approach, and deference toward the authority of conventions, Obama was as Asian as the Dutch legal philosopher Grotius. The question is and will remain whether someone like Trump can get the North Koreans to the table. We’ll just have to wait and see.