Trump’s foreign policy over the first year has been in flux. Disagreements between President and Secretary have been rife, and the cementation of Victor D. Cha as Ambassador to South Korea-elect raised hope of a cogent North Korean policy. Professor Cha has been deemed to be in the running for the past six months. Suddenly – or it appears to be presented that way – Cha is no longer ‘considered’ for the post, amidst claims that this decision was catalyzed by his disapproval for Trump’s ‘bloody nose’ policy on North Korea. The Korean Peninsula has been one where US foreign policy has remained far from cogent. It is easy to simplify the Clinton administration’s policy as ‘attempts at dialogue’, Bush Jnr as the ‘axis of evil’, Obama’s ‘strategic patience’, and Trump’s latest efforts as the ‘bloody nose.’ Yet just as North Korea is a highly complex state, so is US foreign policy on this ‘known unknown’, to use Rumsfeld’s descriptions of another ‘rogue state’.
The State of Union address was no exception. On the one hand, Trump’s condemnations of North Korea continued. The clarion call of the USA’s refusal to accept a nuclear North Korea, and the grave threat posed by nuclear North Korea to the US, fitted the mould of deterrence theory, by calling for the USA to modernize its nuclear arsenal, ‘hopefully never having to use it’, with North Korea in mind. As per usual, the President vowed to “not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position”. On the other hand, we see Trump’s focus on the egregious human rights violations committed by the North Korean regime – the cases of Otto Warmbier and Mr Ji Seong Ho as evidence. Mr Ji, a dedicated North Korean defector and human rights activist, made the arduous journey from the oppression of North Korea to the freedom of Seoul, and continues sending information through broadcasts into North Korea, in the hope that more North Koreans will have their eyes opened to the world beyond their state.
What does this say about the North Korea policy of the Trump ‘era’? We must look at domestic and foreign policy more broadly. Trump’s pursuit of charismatic politics has been marked the ‘I can do better than you’ mentality. Indeed, for a variety of domestic and foreign policy priorities, Trump highlights the ‘mess’ created by previous administrations; North Korea is no exception. Yet to believe that Mr Trump genuinely believes the ‘pressing of the nuclear button’ and use of preemptive strikes may serve as an effective deterrent against North Korea’s continued nuclear development, and mobilize an effective foreign policy with the aim of denuclearization, is somewhat startling. Sanctions have been tried time and again, and as I have mentioned before, North Korea has mastered the art of avoiding them.
It is perfectly rational for Kim Jong un to continue developing nuclear weapons in line with Trump’s rhetoric. It is perfectly rational to call someone a ‘dotard’ if they name you a ‘rocket man’ (North Korea refuses to use American-English terminology: the language of the ‘imperialists’). In line with deterrence theory, North Korea’s nuclear development seems rational in line with its own historical narrative of fear from external threat – although the ideological underpinnings of such a narrative must not be ignored. In response to this, what does an effective 2018 US foreign policy on North Korea look like? First, Trump is to be commended for his support of North Korean defectors such as Mr Ji, but such support needs to move beyond performance. North Korean defectors offer valuable insight into the domestic support for the regime-state, and how this has changed over time – for many defectors, their families remain in the state, and so uncovering the motivations of ‘citizens’ of Kim Jong un, is vital. Second, Trump needs to move beyond this current inchoate puzzle of trying to do too many things at once: denuclearize, set denuclearization as a precondition for talks, support human rights, find ways of destabilizing the status quo regime. Finally, Trump must learn from the past experience of previous administrations in their dealings with North Korea. For one thing, denuclearization should not be a starting point for talks – but a result. And as for the ‘bloody nose’: just as a tissue is not enough to stop a nosebleed , a strike may not be tissue that stops the blood that is the North’s nuclear development. It may, in fact, exacerbate Kim’s nuclear quest.
Victor Cha is correct: US foreign policy on North Korea is a ‘land of lousy options’ : the sooner Mr Trump realizes that it is the question of the least ‘lousy’, not the ‘best’ option, the sooner the lengthy issue that is ‘North Korea’, can be addressed.