The mounting standoff between the United States and North Korea will require intelligence, diplomacy, and patience, and will test whether President Trump can disprove his critics’ most dire concerns about his temperament. Anxieties over a nuclear standoff have risen since North Korea began taking an increasingly hostile tone, showing off what appeared to be a variety of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles during a parade in Pyongyang’s main square Saturday. However, uncertainty over Trump’s ability to calmly manage an escalating situation has contributed to a level of public anxiety that seems to go beyond what was seen during past administrations. To reassure his critics, Trump will have to demonstrate an ability to manage these tensions without letting ego, bluster, or impatience get in the way.
On Sunday, the crisis was temporarily stalled after a North Korean missile test apparently failed, exploding shortly after launch. Such failures have become extremely common since former President Barack Obama ordered increased electronic warfare against Kim Jong Un. The North Korean attempt at a launch came after the Pentagon deployed a strike group to the area during the previous week, with national security adviser HR McMaster saying “it is prudent” to move forces to the area. Official discussion surrounding the situation has been even more aggressive, with a North Korean general declaring Saturday that his country could defeat all its enemies, leaving none to even sign a ceasefire. An ominous Tweet from Trump last week warned: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
Besides showing the willingness of both sides to ignore diplomatic norms, the standoff highlights what it could mean to have two bellicose world leaders, known to act on behalf of their egos, playing a nuclear game of chicken. However, the failure of the North Korean launch has slowed the standoff, and bought some much-needed time to allow cooler heads to prevail. And to Trump’s credit, he has yet to push the situation past a diplomatic point of no return. Now, Trump and his advisors are left with the challenging task of figuring out where to go from here.
In the 1990s, when President Clinton considered a preemptive strike against North Korea, the CIA predicted that such a move could lead to millions of deaths in South Korea. The situation has only gotten worse since then. North Korea may have the ability to launch nuclear weapons at least as far as Japan. Most of these relevant details are still uncertain, given the secretive nature of North Korea, adding to unknown variables to the issue. More likely than not, Trump has been told by advisers, and perhaps by Chinese President Xi Jinping, that there is no good way to demonstrate US power in this situation that wouldn’t put lives at risk – especially in South Korea and Japan. Potential casualties aside, such a move would wreak havoc on an increasingly interconnected global economy.
From North Korea’s perspective, Trump’s recent, seemingly offhand strike against Syria only reinforces the need for a nuclear deterrent in their eyes.
Given the futility of military action, Trump is left with an option that has proven elusive to prior administrations – convincing China to provide help. As North Korea’s largest trading partner, China accounts for 80 percent of their foreign trade. Previous administrations have made sure to keep trade issues separate from security matters on the Korean peninsula when it comes to diplomacy with China. Trump, however, has signaled a willingness to offer China better trade terms in exchange for help with North Korea.
Trump said in a Tweet last week: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!”
Past administrations have kept the issues separate to avoid sending a message that security interests can be put on the table as part of trade discussions.
Michael Green, who was the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia for the George W. Bush White House, explained:
“It opens up the thinking in everyone’s mind around the world that they can haggle for a better deal and get the US to give up on longstanding positions. That is not going to instill confidence.”
However, given the limited ways to subdue an increasingly belligerent North Korea, such a plan could be Trump’s best available option. Nuclear threats certainly call for measures that would not be considered in other situations. The question is whether the Trump White House will be willing to consider the potentially steep demands China could ask in exchange. North Korea provides China with an important buffer between their border and a large, Western-aligned military presence in South Korea and Japan. A Korean peninsula unified under a Western-aligned government is something China would prefer to avoid.
In exchange for putting pressure on North Korea, China would likely demand a decreased US naval presence in East Asia generally, and a decrease in the number of ground troops in South Korea. Some of these demands could conflict with US treaties with other allies.
There is no good option available to Trump. The situation with North Korea will test whether Trump can calmly prioritize a range of diplomatic options, all of which are less than optimal. This is a challenge that requires more than bluster and a show of US strength, instead calling for a shrewd examination of priorities. Instead of proving his critics right by escalating the situation, it could be an opportunity to prove one of his campaign selling points – that his experience as a dealmaker can translate into foreign policy successes.