Baiting the hermit kingdom: No change in North Korea policy under Trump

Diplomacy may take time and patience, but if policymakers would put as much faith into it as they do to the military solutions that we’ve seen fail time and again, we might see some progress in easing tensions in many of the world’s hotspots, including on the Korean Peninsula.


At present, it appears that the two-month-old Trump Administration is most focused on domestic issues, with immigration bans and increased enforcement going hand in hand with deregulation on a massive scale. Most of this is being done under the cover of darkness helpfully provided by a news media that seems incapable at this point of looking at actual policy, content to trade in rumors and innuendo about the President and his top aides.

Hopefully, with the President’s draconian budget proposals, this will change.

Outreach to blue-collar voters while campaigning aside, Trump is no maverick but appears rather typical of the far right of the Republican Party. One need look no further than his cabinet to see that the same old interests are at the helm of the ship of the American state while the President watches Fox News and tweets from the isolation of his stateroom below deck.

In terms of foreign policy, the new President did make some interesting comments while campaigning. At times he seemed to challenge the bipartisan consensus that the United States should have the unique right to ignore international law and even use military force against other countries without consequences.

In this, he fooled many normally skeptical commentators on the libertarian right, long allied with the left in opposition to American militarism and overseas intervention, who took his often off the cuff remarks at face value. They probably shouldn’t be criticized too harshly, a significant portion of the left went along with the drone war and intervention in Libya under Obama with little protest.

That the United States’ militarist foreign policy will continue is clear and it’s doubtful that there will be any pushback from either the press or elected officials of either major American political party. These have remained silent regarding President’s proposed $54 billion increase to military spending, the deployment of more troops to Syria or, most dangerously, increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The more things change…

President Trump has often made the point that the main thing that distinguishes him from the usual politicians is his self-proclaimed skill at negotiating “deals”. Speaking directly to the issue of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) and its ossified autocracy on the trail this past May, he was critical of the past administration’s refusal to talk to the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, saying, “I’ll speak to anybody. There’s a 10% or 20% chance I could talk him out of having his damn nukes, because who the hell wants him to have nukes?”

Even if it’s expressed without the usual decorum, this is a rational position you almost never hear from foreign policy experts in North America and Europe, who seem to think that threats and further sanctions will force Pyongyang’s surrender and transform the country into a Western-style democracy overnight. It doesn’t matter that this saber-rattling hasn’t worked in the past, in the bizarre world of Washington, DC, consistently being wrong appears to have no effect on an individual’s prospects for promotion.

As someone who only occasionally follows this ongoing story, in part because balanced information is so hard to come by, I was at first caught up in the cable news panic that followed the announcement of North Korea’s ballistic missile launches starting on February 11th.

Although no excuses can be made for the depredations of the leadership in Pyongyang, it’s important to understand their point of view in hopes of preventing a potentially catastrophic conflict. Almost every missile test by North Korea has coincided with annual military exercises in South Korea, often including the country’s former colonial master Japan, a fact that’s rarely reported up front in Western media.

The military brass is well aware of this, as a recent statement from Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford’s office shows, while at the same time spinning the DPRK as solely responsible for any tensions, “The chairman recognized the possibility that North Korea could conduct provocative actions during the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercise, or in connection with North Korean major political events in April.”  

Yet official Washington acted with feigned surprise at North Korea’s tests.

Even without looking at the long-term history of the country, it’s possible to understand the position of the DPRK‘s leadership from very recent events. As reported by Reuters, quoting the country’s state news agency KCNA, “On March 11 alone, many enemy carrier-based aircraft flew along a course near territorial air and waters of the DPRK to stage drills of dropping bombs and making surprise attacks on the ground targets of its army.”

From the perspective of North Korea, it might appear that it’s the new administration in Washington that’s making risky moves, including deploying drones equipped with Hellfire missiles close to the country’s border for “surveillance purposes”. 

The THAAD dilemma

Even more worrying, not only for Pyongyang but also for one of the few countries with any leverage over North Korea’s leadership, China, is the deployment of two THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) systems to Pyeongtaek, South Korea

This has damaged relations between China and South Korea, who have become friendly in recent years to the economic benefit of both. Increased tourism from mainland China to South Korea with its comparably dynamic social liberalism and culture of protest could also have positive effects in China over the longer term.

Regardless, greater cooperation between these two nations could be a deciding factor in a de-escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula while also leading to a smaller (and less expensive) role for the United States military in the region.

Besides straining relations with its powerful neighbor who sees the THAAD deployments as primarily directed at it rather than the DPRK, it also comes against the backdrop of South Korea’s biggest political scandal in years. This has resulted in the impeachment of the country’s first female President, the hawkish Park Geun-hye, with a snap election called for the 9th of May.

If recent polls are to be believed, she will most likely be replaced by a liberal who will try to revive the “Sunshine Policy” of the recent past, calling for peace and eventually, reunification with the North.

When we look for reasons for the deployment of the THAADs, it’s important to bear in mind that each battery, manufactured by giant defense contractor Lockheed Martin, costs $1.6 billion. The country already pays half the cost of the US forces deployed on its territory but unnamed defense sources told Defense News that with their introduction, “Seoul’s burden sharing could increase.” 

While the deployments were negotiated before he took office, this seems in line with the new US President’s calls for greater burden sharing by America’s allies throughout the world; that it’s hugely profitable for a major defense contractor is simply icing on the cake.

Beijing’s point of view that the systems are directed against them does make some sense when one considers they join two radars that are a component of the system installed in Japan, as well as another unit deployed in Guam.

This is something we’ve seen before. When Russia complained about similar systems in Eastern Europe, the US and EU claimed that the deployments were to counter Iran’s ballistic missile program. This argument was made despite the fact that many experts believe these systems would be ineffective as a deterrent against either Iranian or North Korean missiles. The THAAD system is specifically designed to take out higher altitude, longer range ICBMs.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and China will not step up its own missile production in response to these ill-advised deployments.

Diplomacy can work

Although it seems that most mainstream commentators and even the current Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson have forgotten, it wasn’t so long ago that skillful diplomacy reduced the threat represented by the DPRK and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Agreed Framework, which had North Korea give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for aid remains a model for humanitarian diplomacy over humanitarian intervention.

This easing of tensions lasted from 1994 until 2002 when former President George W. Bush declared the country part of an “Axis of Evil” possibly targeted for regime change, in the wake of the horrific events of September 11th, 2001.

Aside from the very slow moving Six Party Talks that resulted in the DPRK once again stating a commitment to rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2005, the country has been isolated for more than a decade. It isn’t as if Pyongyang is an innocent in this, many of its problems stem from reneging on this commitment in 2009 after widespread international condemnation of a rocket test and problems with verification regarding their nuclear program.

The policy of not talking with the North Korean leadership seems set to continue under the Trump Administration, the President’s previous words on the issue aside. One recent example of this continuing policy was offered by the State Department’s refusal to issue a visa for the head of a North Korean delegation in New York for unofficial talks with non-government experts.

This kind of outsider diplomacy is necessary to ease tensions while short circuiting the complaints of those who constantly call for a more belligerent approach, both within the DPRK and in Washington and Seoul. All the more so now because the White House’s budget plan guts the State Department in the name of increasing defense spending.

The concerns of more than 50 million South Koreans and almost 30,000 US troops who will bear the brunt of any resumption of hostilities shouldn’t be dismissed so easily by power brokers in Washington and other Western capitals eager to appear tough when it comes to Pyongyang. They should also be reminded of the almost 25 million North Koreans who have little say in how their country is run and who will themselves be innocent victims in any renewed conflict.

Diplomacy may take time and patience, but if policymakers would put as much faith into it as they do to the military solutions that we’ve seen fail time and again, we might see some progress in easing tensions in many of the world’s hotspots, including on the Korean Peninsula. 


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