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North Korea redux

Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, April 7th, 2018 - 14 comments
Categories: China, Donald Trump, International, Japan, Korea, us politics, war - Tags:

Does being incoherent work sometimes?

I did a little post a couple of months ago about Korea, hoping that war would not break out, but worrying anyway.

So with the President of North Korea visiting China for the first time, meeting with the South Korean President for the first time, preparing to meet with the Japanese President, and even preparing to meet with the President of the United States, I have to ask if Trump’s approach actually is right for the circumstances.

We are used to thinking that diplomacy about North Korea must be the same as for any other massively errant state, namely, that the administration must ground its diplomacy and its overall approach to North Korea in a strategy of comprehensive coercion that clearly defines anti-proliferation objectives, leverages Washington’s most effective and diplomatic tools, and aligns its Korea policy with the broader U.S. strategy in Asia.

And yet right now all of that looks wrong.

It seems like being impetuous and incoherent is the right tactical approach to get results. Because just before this set of positive exchanges U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies to North Korea have been whiplash inducing. On February 23, he appeared to be gearing up for a conflict when he said that if sanctions against Pyongyang didn’t work, Washington would have to move to “phase two,” which could be “very, very unfortunate for the world.” But just two weeks later, Trump abruptly changed course and accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — a decision that caught even his own White House and State Department by surprise.

Trump’s newfound enthusiasm for diplomacy has temporarily lowered the temperature on the Korean Peninsula, but it also underlines a bigger question: Does the United States have a strategy for North Korea, or are these twists and turns merely the whims of a temperamental president? Does it matter if the other side can’t tell the difference, so starts making useful diplomatic moves? In the past, rash and uninformed decisions by U.S. officials on the peninsula — such as acquiescing to Japan’s occupation of Korea in 1905 and excluding Korea from the U.S. Cold War defense perimeter in 1950 — have had grave consequences. The United States and the rest of the world to be honest cannot afford a similar outcome today.

Trump’s unpredictability has upsides. His self-proclaimed “madman” behavior may have played a role in bringing the North Koreans to the table, and the Trump administration’s policy of applying, in the White House’s words, “maximum pressure” has yielded some impressive results. An unprecedented summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders could indeed bring lasting peace to Asia. But it could also go wrong: if negotiations fail, the administration might conclude that a military strike is the only way forward, greatly increasing the chance of war.

14 comments on “North Korea redux ”

  1. arkie 1

    American presidents have previously offered to meet with the leaders of North Korean but only if certain conditions are met, such as an agreement to cease North Korea’s nuclear weapon program.

    Trump offering to meet without any concessions is not a success of diplomacy, it’s a win for Pyongyang, legitimacy gained. The Trump administration has not achieved anything impressive in that regard.

    The elevation of John Bolton is greatly worrying as he has been advocating for a ‘first strike’ against N Korea since at least 2015. When the talks fail – which they will – Bolton will be able to argue that diplomacy doesn’t work, only ‘preventive war’.

    • Ad 1.1

      I can see your point.
      The situation to me is so confused that it’s pretty hard to see where the actual diplomatic wins are.
      It’s just as easy to attribute the recent moves to the new South Korean President, who appears to have been doing sterling work on this front.

  2. Andre 2

    ” … accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — a decision that caught even his own White House and State Department by surprise. ”

    The invitation seems unlikely to be a surprise if there were anyone competent in the White House or yet to bail out of the State Department. North Korea’s leaders have frequently wanted meetings with the prez, but been turned down because of the background work wanted beforehand.


  3. Gristle 3

    China and North Korea have a treaty in place covering mutual support in the event one or both is threatened by an external party.

    Until recently China has had a policy in place of gradually allowing more stringent international prohibitions to be placed against North Korea.

    China has a military position of extending it’s control and dominance of peripheral territories, see for example the South China Sea.

    USA’s recent trade tariffs and China, and proposed extensions, have made explicit some of the tensions between the two regimes.

    Any new move against North Korea would be seen by China as a move against itself.

    I do not think that it is feasible for the USA to propose military action against North Korea without factoring in China.

    Were I at all involved in the placement of North Korea’s WMDs then having some near the border with China would be a feature of my plan. Would you attack such sites if you knew that China is likely to see the attack trajectories as heading towards itself.

    Getting China on to the sidelines would require the USA to back down on tariffs,and maybe other things. Trump contradicts hitself, but there doesn’t appear to be a reverse gear.

    So my current position is that North Korea will go on to the back burner for as long as the USA pushes trade wars with China and North Korea doesn’t get adventurous in its weapons testing.

    And then being stymied here will see the USA becoming increasingly aggressive against Iran.

    • SPC 3.1

      Like a focus on pulling out of an actual nuclear deal with Iran, while normalising North Korea realising actual inter-continental weapons strike capabilty to the US homeland makes any sense.

      That would be like saying a potential future nuclear weapons capability in Iranian threat (to Israel) is intolerable, but one to the USA is not so big a deal. America first in ruins …

      • Gristle 3.1.1

        I am not saying it makes sense from a military perspective. But if you’re itching to pull the trigger then Iran makes a safer target.

        My guess on timing is that it will be just prior to mid term elections. Close enough to carry momentum without getting stale or body bags arriving back in the USA.

  4. SPC 4

    There have been decades since the cease-fire in 1953.

    And the nuclear capability development in North Korea was not the reason for the lack of peace settlement.

    Since that time Vietnam and Germany have unified, and Beijing recognised as the location of China’s government.

    Whatever reasons there might have been for the lack of a formal peace, they are insignificant compared to the security dilemma of a nation armed with inter-continental nuclear weapons remaining at a cease-fire state after a UN military intervention and conflict with a now current UNSC member.

    So the play book needs to be thrown away.

    • dukeofurl 4.1

      First to throw away the playbook when they violated the Korean Armistice was the US.

      This was during the middle 50s when US introduced Nuclear weapons into Korean territory.
      Paragraph 13(d) of the Armistice Agreement mandated that neither side introduce new weapons into Korea, other than piece-for-piece replacement of equipment.
      In September 1956 the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Radford indicated that the U.S. military intention was to introduce atomic weapons into Korea, ,/i>

  5. barry 5

    North Korea want to start negotiating, because they have put all their cards on the table.

    They have showed the world the extent of their military development, and it will be some years before they will have anything bigger to show off.

    They have long been invulnerable to attack unless their enemies are prepared to sacrifice Seoul. They could cause a fair bit of damage to Japan, but can’t seriously threated the US. It is a big step to take working nuclear bombs and put them on an ICBM, which might just be reliable enough. Even the US & Russia have never actually tested an ICBM with a live nuclear warhead.

    So now North Korea will want to talk and try to get something back. Reduced sanctions, technology transfer etc.

    The conditions have never been right for US presidents to meet the North Korean leader before. If Trump does go ahead then it will be widely seen as a win for Kim. Maybe it will result in a reduction in tensions and make the world safer. We would be in uncharted territory.

  6. McFlock 6

    Heh. The point of Nixon’s madman strategy was that he wasn’t actually mad – he’d stop when he’d gained concessions attractive to any rational person.

    Trump’s going for Mike Pompeo as NSA and John Bolton as SecState. Both activists for war with Iran and North Korea.

    NK’s leadership is corrupt, but it still is rational and values self preservation. They’re hoping that between diplomatic niceties, China’s support, and maybe blowing so much smoke up his arse that Trump likes him will all have the result of putting Iran at the top of the bombing list, rather than NK.

    But all of this simply serves to give legitimacy to the NK government, anyway, so as long as Trump’s out of office before he can start bombing NK, this is a big win for KJU.

  7. D'Esterre 7

    The conditions for peace on the Korean peninsula require the US to withdraw its military from Japan, South Korea and Guam, countries it has occupied since the end of WW2.

    So long as North Korea feels under threat, it will retaliate in kind. It seems that contemporary US officials have – along with much of the rest of the world – forgotten the horrors of the Korean War. We can be sure that the North Koreans have not! See this:

    And we can also be sure that Kim has learned the lessons of the disastrous US “regime change” wars in the ME. And – for the sake of the safety of the rest of the world – we’d better hope that he refuses to give up his WMDs. See this, from the greatly-missed, late Robert Parry:

    • Wayne 7.1

      I don’t see North Korea insisting on no US troops in Japan. They would know the US Japan Treaty is beyond their capability to influence. Clearly Japan is not going to be pushed around by North Korea.
      Different story on the Korean Peninsula. If there was a proper Peace Treaty, a withdrawal of US troops and verifiable nuclear disarmament by North Korea then that could be a deal that would work for everyone.
      We shall see.

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