Paul Pillar

The Trump Administration Is Ready to Redefine a North Korea 'Win'

Believing one’s own puffery and press releases is a hazard for many public figures, but probably especially so for Donald Trump. Although the true beliefs of any demagogue may remain hidden, this hazard can be expected to be all the greater to the extent a leader who makes lying an all-consuming way of life, closes himself off from many sources of insight and information, and prefers the company of sycophants.

The hazard may be coming into play regarding the opening with North Korea, centered on the idea that Trump somehow is mainly responsible for the current thaw in relations between the communist hermit kingdom and the rest of the world. Foreign leaders have learned that flattery is the surest way to get Trump’s attention and cooperation, and in this case South Korean president Moon Jae-in has used that tool to suggest that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for the thaw. Trump has soaked up the flattery and the chants of “Nobel” at a campaign-style rally of Trump’s supporters in Michigan.

The specific notion in question is that pressure from Trump’s administration has succeeded in making North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un less belligerent and more accommodating than he was before. But pressure on North Korea is nothing new, as a matter of policy by previous U.S. administrations and a collective response from the international community. There is somewhat more plausibility to the notion that pressure is viewed less in terms of economic sanctions than of the possibility of Trump’s administration launching a military attack on North Korea. The plausibility comes from Trump’s impulsive nature and the presence of a trigger-happy security adviser such as John Bolton. Deconstruct the notion a bit more, however, and one runs into the probability that a U.S. attack would elicit a North Korean response that would, even at the conventional level, involve large-scale casualties in South Korea and might well involve the use of nuclear weapons. Kim has displayed enough shrewdness to be able to reason all of this out and to conclude that Trump would be unlikely to commit the folly of initiating such a war.

Moreover, although a genuine breakthrough in North Korea’s relationship with the rest of the world is possible, it has not yet occurred. Nothing has been achieved that materially advances the interests of the United States, world peace, or nuclear nonproliferation. The current thaw is the latest chapter in a history of Kim and his father interspersing threats with detente. The biggest benefit so far in the Kim-Trump relationship has gone to Kim with the promise of a summit meeting, in which the young dictator would meet on an equal footing with the leader of the most powerful country in the world.

Kim’s offerings so far have been tentative, conditional, or insubstantial—a fact that Trump has misrepresented in his tweets on the subject. North Korea has paused its testing of nuclear devices and missiles in the past, and it can end the current pause just as easily as it has ended earlier ones. The closing of a nuclear test site hardly matters when the mountain in question evidently is no longer usable for testing anyway, and North Korea has plenty of other mountains it can use. References to “denuclearization” continue to be clouded by North Korean interpretations of that term to imply much more than just Pyongyang giving up its nukes. Kim’s other promises and offers have been conditioned on the United States or South Korea making major changes, and on North Korean interpretations of what would constitute sufficient change.

North Korean Motivations

Even if Kim’s latest moves represent more than just another tactical turn in years of his regime blowing hot and cold, other influences have been at least as important in bringing events to the current juncture. On why Kim is making such moves now, the most obvious explanation is that the North Korean program of weapons testing has only recently reached a point where the regime can be confident that it has a nuclear deterrent that will actually deter, and especially deter the United States. Kim declared after the latest North Korean missile test, “Now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” This newly achieved posture gives the regime not only more confidence but more bargaining power in any dealings with the United States or anyone else.

The Winter Olympics in South Korea probably were an additional reason for the timing of the current North Korean charm offensive. Pyongyang wanted to participate in the games as a mark of international acceptance, and the associated talks also served as a forum for wider interaction with Seoul.

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