May 16, 2017 1:30 am JST
Philip Gordon

Trump's bluff on North Korea will not work

How empty threats undermine White House credibility

U.S. President Trump, left, and Vice President Pence leave a briefing for members of the U.S. Senate on North Korea at the White House on April 26. © Reuters

To the extent that Donald Trump had a case for becoming America's president and commander-in-chief, it was that his business success would position him to make better international deals for his country. The argument was that Trump as a master negotiator would drive a harder bargain with adversaries than his conflict-averse predecessor, Barack Obama, by bringing more credibility and unpredictability to the table, while using his leverage and deal-making skills to gain concessions.

Where North Korea was concerned, this meant putting down a marker that Obama's failed policy of "strategic patience" had ended, that the U.S. would not tolerate the further development of Pyongyang's missile and nuclear capability, and that if China did not join the U.S. in pressuring North Korea, it would also pay a major price.

The approach sounds good in theory, but it is highly unlikely to work in reality. By proclaiming ambitious goals he is almost certainly unable to reach, making threats he is almost certainly unwilling to carry out, and signaling to China and others how badly he wants their help, Trump is setting himself up for an embarrassing climb down -- one that will undermine his credibility not only with North Korea but with other global powers. Pyongyang further upped the ante with its latest missile test, on May 14, by launching what it claims is a new type of rocket capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead.

The first problem is the implied threat of military force to prevent North Korea from developing the capability to launch a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile that would reach parts of the U.S., which Trump declared in January on Twitter "won't happen!" There is no question that Pyongyang's ability to strike California with a nuclear-tipped missile would be a significant increase in the threat it poses to the U.S., but the painful reality is that North Korea is already in a position to kill thousands of Americans and millions of others. With an estimated current stockpile of up to 20 nuclear warheads, tens of thousands of rockets and artillery pieces within range of the 25 million residents of greater Seoul, medium-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting American bases in South Korea and Japan (as well, potentially, the state of Hawaii), the North Korean threat is not a hypothetical to be prevented but a reality that exists today. It is hard to imagine even Trump taking pre-emptive action that would almost certainly provoke a catastrophic conflict on the Korean peninsula -- and lead to the deaths of many Americans -- to prevent the North Korean ballistic missile threat from expanding.

Paper Tiger

There is also little reason to believe that either the North Koreans or the Chinese would find such an ultimatum particularly credible given the likely costs and consequences, the opposition of key allies, and Trump's growing record of abandoning major policy commitments.

In less than four months in office, Trump has already backed away from threats or promises to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, leverage the "one China" policy for trade concessions from Beijing, weaken the U.S. commitment to NATO, get rid of the Export-Import Bank, declare China a currency manipulator, and make Mexico pay for the construction of a wall. Why should the North Koreans believe this issue is any different?

Some Trump supporters argue that his decision in April to strike a Syrian air base in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus government was meant as sending a serious "message" to Pyongyang. But it will take a lot more than a single, low-risk salvo against a Syrian military runway to convince Pyongyang that Washington is ready to risk nuclear war. The recent election of a South Korean president even less likely than his predecessor to support a confrontational U.S. approach to the North will likely further undermine the credibility of the threat of pre-emptive action.

As a result, Trump's approach is unlikely to prompt North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile development program or panic China into pressing Pyongyang to do so. While China has no particular interest in seeing the expansion of North Korea's nuclear and missile program, it is far more worried about a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, which could trigger massive refugee flows into China and lead to the unification of the peninsula under the control of an U.S.-allied South Korea, than it is about an incremental increase in the North Korean nuclear threat to the U.S. (but not to China.)

The irony here is that while Trump came to power promising to contain Chinese expansion in the region and force it to make trade concessions, he is now signaling to Beijing that he needs it more than it needs him -- not an ideal negotiating position. By announcing his willingness to make trade concessions to China in exchange for help on North Korea, Trump is doing little more than driving up the price of that potential help.

Getting real

None of this means there are no options for action on North Korea. Trump's first priority should be to make clear to Pyongyang that if it ever did use nuclear weapons or attack the South, its regime -- for which self-preservation is paramount -- would be destroyed. Second, the U.S. should continue to develop its missile defenses, both of the U.S. homeland and its South Korean and Japanese partners. If China does not like that policy, let it pressure Pyongyang to reduce the threat that requires such a buildup.

Third, the U.S. and its Asian allies need to define a more realistic goal than near-term denuclearization since at this point there is almost nothing that could persuade Pyongyang to abandon its deterrent lifeline short of an invasion that would come at an unacceptably high cost. North Korea's full denuclearization is an unrealistic goal, but limits on the size, sophistication and scope of that program -- along with assurances against further proliferation -- might be attainable in response to the right package of carrots and sticks.

South Koreans are well placed to know the strategic importance of making sure an adversary knows where are the true red lines. It is widely believed that U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson's failure to mention South Korea in his January 1950 "defensive perimeter" speech about U.S. interests in Asia represented a missed opportunity of sending a clear signal to North Korea that the U.S. was willing to defend the Seoul government. Instead, North Korea invaded South Korea six months later. But the corollary to this principle is that if you say you are determined to stop something from happening, you had better actually be prepared to do so. That is the fatal flaw in Trump's approach.

Trump seems to believe that blustery threats, backed by a military buildup and talk of an "armada" heading toward the Sea of Japan will somehow induce adversaries in Pyongyang or Beijing to abandon longstanding and deeply held positions. But he seems to have no plan in place if and when those adversaries call his bluff.

Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. He is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and White House Coordinator for the Middle East.

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