President Trump should be taking a victory lap. In recent days, Kim Jung Un has backed away from his earlier threat to bomb Guam, according to Pyongyang's state-run media.
At the same time, China has (finally) leveled extremely damaging sanctions against North Korea, banning imports of coal, iron and seafood.
Are these positive developments an accident? No, it appears that the Trump White House has changed the calculus by the leaders of those two countries, and that the president has had a plan for confronting the hermit kingdom, after all.
Unfortunately, as has happened all too often, the White House, offering initially only a tepid condemnation of the racist attack in Charlottesville, has stepped on its own good news.
Obama knew that Pyongyang had moved faster and farther towards nuclear capability than generally known. He just didn’t want to deal with it. His diplomatic priority with China was to get them to sign onto the Paris Climate Accord.
President Trump shocked the world by warning that military aggression by North Korea would be met with “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before." Critics have called his bold threats against the hermit nation undisciplined and dangerous. They have accused the Trump White House as uncoordinated, and lacking a strategy.
Could they be wrong? Yes.
Trump’s aggressive remarks appear consistent with a multi-step strategy that has been in the works for months. The president has not laid out his plan, because, as he has argued on numerous occasions, doing so can undermine any program’s effectiveness. Announcing that we would attack Mosul in several months’ time, as President Obama did, only allowed ISIS fighters to dig in, stockpile supplies and bolster their defenses. In war and in diplomacy, the element of surprise can be critical.
Trump’s team may have decided, as others have, that the only path to changing North Korea’s provocative behavior was through China. Beijing has until now paid only lip service to reining in their belligerent neighbor. China is guided exclusively by their own self-interest; it has been convenient and fruitful to have the West begging for their help.
How to engage China in a more serious and effective manner?
The first step in the plan was to convince Beijing that President Trump is as unpredictable and potentially dangerous as Kim Jung Un, and would not hesitate to use force if provoked.
This important first step was accomplished during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar-al-Lago in April. That was the first meeting for the two heads of state, the critical “first read.” The two leaders enjoyed a dinner and conversation with wives and associates, which was abruptly interrupted when President Trump excused himself to meet with his security advisors.
The United States had just bombed Syria, in retaliation for the Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. The strike was unexpected, targeted and it sent an unequivocal message to President Xi: there is a new Commander in Chief in town who, unlike Obama, would use military force to back up his threats. No more meaningless red lines; if Trump promised retaliation, as he did when he warned the Syrian regime not to poison its own people, he would follow through.
That the Trump team gave the Chinese no advance warning of the strike was entirely intentional. It was meant to rattle President Xi and his foreign policy henchmen, and set them to recalibrating what the United States might do next.
The next step in the program was to spotlight China’s hypocrisy, and to reaffirm its responsibility for enabling North Korea’s march to nuclear capability. At the Mar-al-Lago summit, President Trump backed down from earlier threats to label China a “currency manipulator” in exchange for Xi’s promises to help rein in Kim Jung Un, following the playbook of prior administrations.
Three months later, however, Trump tweeted that he was “very disappointed in China”. “They do NOTHING for us with North Korea…just talk.” In interviews he called out China’s cheating, noting that its trade with North Korea had jumped 34 percent in the first quarter – hardly indicative of economic pressure. Stories appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere chronicling how Chinese companies, with full knowledge of the government, had circumvented sanctions against Pyongyang, enabling their weapons programs.
Having spotlighted China’s treachery, the United States began to press for broader sanctions on North Korea. Ambassador Nikki Haley scored a major foreign policy win when the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to meaningful and damaging sanctions against Pyongyang. Its duplicity exposed, China was in no position to object.
Sanctions, however, may not stop North Korea’s march towards nuclear capability. It may also require fear.
Hence, President Trump has undertaken step three – threatening North Korea’s very existence. Kim Jung Un is ruthless but not a madman, nor is he stupid. He would not have risen to the top of his nation without cunning and an excellent survival instinct. He understands that the United States has the military capability to destroy his country; but he has never imagined it would come to that.
Kim has also long understood that his nuclear weapons program gave him standing on the world stage. He will not give that up unless he is afraid for his life, or his regime. He may not do so even then; we will soon find out.
The foreign policy establishment is aghast at Trump’s belligerence. Tranquilized by decades of “strategic patience,” they have no new ideas, in fact no ideas at all. Learned papers have asserted that there are no good options in dealing with North Korea, even with all options on the table. The defeatism, from the world’s most powerful nation, is embarrassing.
President Trump is trying something new. When he met with his predecessor before taking office, President Obama warned him about North Korea. Obama knew that Pyongyang had moved faster and farther towards nuclear capability than generally known; he knew they had miniaturized weapons that fit on the nose of a ballistic missile. He just didn’t want to deal with it. His diplomatic priority with China was to get them to sign onto the Paris Climate Accord.
So warned, President Trump has had many months to map out a new approach to North Korea with his security team. Standing alongside his impressive team of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Nikki Haley the other day in Bedminster, he seemed in command and confidant.
Will his gamble work? We don’t know, but if I were Kim Jung Un, or President Xi, I would not underestimate this president.