IO, – Of all the questions Asia faces today, the preeminent one is how to avert conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Certainly the risk seems high: After a turbulent 2017 with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un intensifying his nuclear and missile tests and launching an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting targets on the continental United States, an ugly exchange of insults and threats between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim, and the imposition of stringent economic sanctions against North Korea, tensions have reached levels that make it seem both countries are stumbling along the path toward war.
Even before he entered the White House, Trump knew North Korea would pose a major challenge for his new administration. When Barack Obama gave Trump a briefing on foreign policy during the transition, he warned Trump about Kim and his ambitions to become a nuclear power. Shortly thereafter, Trump supposedly remarked to one of his close aides, “I will be judged by how I handle this.”
That Trump would face off with Kim in such a caustic manner is, in retrospect, not surprising. Long before becoming the forty-fifth president of the United States, Donald Trump was already infamous for his combative personality and penchant for using derogatory remarks when facing down his opponents in business. During the presidential campaign of 2016, when he entered the world of politics for the first time, one might have hoped for a more statesmanlike approach. But as Senator Marco Rubio was to learn when Trump awarded him the moniker of “Little Marco” during the Republican Party presidential debates, Trump will always remain Trump.
Now little more than year into the Trump presidency, the implications of having a non-conventional and confrontational figure in the Oval Office—who, his critics argue, is extraordinarily disruptive—are devastatingly clear.
It is not just simply a matter of having, as the White House recently admitted, a ‘politically incorrect’ president. When it comes to Washington’s allies and adversaries abroad, Trump’s abrupt and harsh style, besides being disruptive, also carries dangerous consequences.
Words can matter for a lot. This is especially true with Trump’s invectives directed against Kim, or “Little Rocket Man” as he is often called in Trump’s tweets. In his standoff with Kim, one is uncomfortably reminded of a Hollywood-style celebrity feud. Only in this case, the two parties in a war of words also happen to be nuclear-armed states that could inadvertently end up in a war with potentially horrific consequences.
But it is not just a verbal barrage that has caused the current heightened state of tensions. Besides Trump’s tough talk, his administration has led the drafting of UN Security Council resolutions that have imposed increasingly tougher economic sanctions on North Korea. If the sanctions hold and smuggling can be kept at bay—a big ‘if’ for sure—then they will pose an existential threat to the Kim regime.
Relying primarily upon China and, to a lesser extent Russia, for enforcing the sanctions, Washington’s foreign policy establishment believes this is the best means to force Kim into agreeing to surrender his nuclear weapons program and, eventually, full-scale denuclearization. But according to North Korea experts, Kim’s main motive for possessing nuclear weapons is not offensive. Rather, it is to deter the United States from invading his country. After what happened to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after abandoning their weapons programs, one could hardly blame Kim for thinking a nuclear weapons program is the best option for ensuring his regime’s survival.
Given the current standoff between Washington and Pyongyang, it would be naïve to believe North and South Korea’s coming together recently to discuss the former’s participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang necessarily signals a positive development. As long as the Trump administration insists on denuclearization and Kim persists in believing nuclear weapons are the only way to deter the United States from invading his country, there is no room for compromise and a diplomatic solution.
To be fair, the current crisis is not entirely of Trump’s making. Three previous U.S. presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—tried their hands at using economic sanctions through the U.N. Security Council to convince Pyongyang into rolling back its nuclear and missile programs. But with South Korea continuing to subsidize Pyongyang, China violating the sanctions with impunity even after it voted in favor of them in the U.N. Security Council and Washington switching its strategy several times over from one of sanctions to using inducements, the Kim dynasty effectively bought itself enough time over the decades to develop the weapons and missiles it never intended to surrender. In a word, the proverbial train has left the station.
Where all of this leads us is unknown. Which is precisely why there is so much angst, not only on the Korean Peninsula and Washington, but also throughout Northeast Asia and beyond. Much like members of the Trump cabinet and the U.S. Congress, Pyongyang is confused about Trump’s real intentions. Is his tweet that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely” merely a bluff? Kim and his advisors don’t know. Similarly, Washington can only speculate about the thoughts lurking inside the minds of Kim and his advisors. Such imperfect information can easily lead to a serious miscalculation by either or both sides. And therein lies the danger.