Paul Pillar

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

To the extent economic pressure played into Pyongyang’s thinking, it is such pressure from China, applied for Beijing’s own reasons, that is far more important than pressure from any other direction, given the patterns of North Korean trade. To the extent the initiative of any one government other than North Korea itself has been responsible for the current thaw, that would be the government of President Moon, who has skillfully played his diplomatic hand to further his objective of lowering tension on the peninsula. Moon’s comment about Trump and a Nobel Prize came in response to suggestions that Moon himself deserved such a prize. Also worth recalling is that a Kim-Trump summit became a news item when Trump reacted impulsively and on the spot to a report from South Korean officials about the much more careful preparatory work that Moon’s government already had performed.

Gloomy Outlook

The prospects for Kim giving up his nuclear weapons remain dim. If threats from the Trump administration of military attack are an explanation for the current thaw, then they also are a reason why Pyongyang will be all the more determined to retain its nuclear deterrent. This is the sort of situation in which a threat of force as a way of trying to get any state to do any kind of disarmament is counterproductive. States maintain deterrent forces precisely to deal with such threats.

A farther-reaching change in U.S. relations with the Koreas that involved genuine denuclearization is conceivable. This would entail, however, a much more sweeping agenda, involving not only issues of U.S. forces in South Korea but also of eventual Korean unification, which does not appear to underlie the Trump administration’s policy. The administration’s posture, as Bolton has suggested, probably will remain one of demanding North Korean denuclearization before talking seriously about any other subjects.

The mistaken causal explanation for apparent North Korean flexibility for which Trump is taking credit is not unique to Trump. Belief in the supposed all-purpose efficacy of threats and pressure, both economic and military, has long been a mainstay of thinking among American hardliners such as Bolton. The belief also fits into an even broader habit of American thought that sees the United States as the global prime mover that can accomplish just about anything if it throws its weight around sufficiently.

The Trump administration will likely find a way to claim that its “maximum pressure” worked—even if the results from any Kim-Trump meeting fall far short of current rhetoric about denuclearization. The spin might be that such pressure bought some peace even if other factors, such as insufficient cooperation from China, stood in the way of a more dramatic result. In any event, the erroneous lesson being drawn and publicized will be unhelpful in trying to achieve a genuine resolution of the problem of North Korea and its nuclear weapons. The lesson also will be unhelpful insofar as it gets applied to the task of getting Russia, Iran, or some other state to do what the United States would like it to do.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World.

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump participates in an onstage interview with moderator Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, during a youth forum titled Generation Next, at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst​