Trump and the art of a North Korean deal

Even though Trump’s dramatic rhetoric is often criticized, as Matthew Bondy argues, he might have the leverage he needs to achieve a major diplomatic breakthrough.

By: /
September 21, 2017
Trump at UN 2
US President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

President Donald Trump infamously threatened to unleash "fire and fury" against North Korea if its ruling thug regime and enslaved sycophants carry on with their nuclear shenanigans. Which is exactly what the Kim Jong Un regime did on September 15 when it fired an intermediate range ballistic missile over US-allied Japan in an act of defiance and escalation.

In turn, Trump let fly with even more heated rhetoric during his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.

"The United States has great strength and patience," he said, "but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."

That's first-rate bluster, even by Trump standards. But is it a bluff?

There's no getting around the fact that America's military options on North Korea are all pretty terrible.

American writer Mark Bowden recently sketched out four scenarios along the spectrum of conflict in The Atlantic. They include a massive first strike along with regime change; a limited strike to roll back DPRK's nuclear program while trying to avoid escalation; assassinating the regime's leaders, including Kim; and accepting a nuclear North Korea and adopting strategies to work around it.

Only one of those seems even remotely viable — the first option of total attack and regime change. Like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, you could at least make a show of trying to fit it into the confines of international law by arguing a DPRK nuclear attack is imminent. This approach also gives the US and its allies the best possible shot of destroying North Korea's nuclear capability and minimizing a conventional DPRK counter-attack against Seoul, the allied South Korean metropolis located a stone's throw from the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.

Bowden's other options, which reflect mainstream thinking on the crisis, are even more terrible. A limited strike, perfectly calibrated to roll-back Kim's nuclear program while avoiding further escalation, sounds reasonable and measured but it's probably too tricky — the risk of miscalculation is massive and it gives the DPRK too many retaliatory options. Assassination of heads of state — even communist dictators — is super illegal, according to international and even US law. And living with a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable. The risks, from a domino chain of nuclear proliferation to the geo-political instability it would introduce, are simply too great.

"There's some evidence to suggest that China thinks Trump is perfectly serious about his willingness to strike North Korea."

Bad as the military options are, though, there's some evidence to suggest that China — the DPRK's sole great power ally and its diplomatic tackle-blocker — thinks Trump is perfectly serious about his willingness to strike North Korea if the rogue state continues to escalate tensions. And that could hold the key to a major diplomatic breakthrough.

"Not only is Washington brimming with confidence and arrogance following the missile attacks on Syria," warned an editorial in China's Global Times, known to express state views, "but Trump is also willing to be regarded as a man who honors his promises." The publication suggested that, to resolve the crisis, China could extend security guarantees to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization.

That Chinese overture, of brokering North Korean denuclearization in exchange for Chinese-guaranteed and American-acknowledged regime security, could form the outlines of a tremendous diplomatic solution. The DPRK gets regime stability, China gets to keep a totalitarian buffer zone between itself and American-allied nations, Japan and South Korea are encouraged to remain nuclear free, and the US has certainty that the DPRK will never be able to attack US allies or the US homeland with a nuclear weapon.

No doubt, it's a long shot.

The DPRK could just as easily make the alternative decision to "sprint" to full nuclear weapons capability if it felt a US strike was in the offing. But if regime survival is truly North Korea's primary goal, Trump's military threats are perceived as credible, and the Chinese and Americans can develop an airtight alternative proposal for regime security in exchange for denuclearization, peace and nuclear disarmament could well be possible.

Of course, it’s worth wondering: why does the 45th US president seem so credible as commander-in-chief to some of his adversaries, anyway?

The Trump administration certainly feels more militarist than its predecessors, between the unceremonious bombing of Syria, massive boosts to defence spending, and Trump’s interminable references to his “generals.” But so far his operational track record is still pretty tame compared to presidents 43 and 44.

Obama successfully took out Osama bin Laden and even helped topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya. George W. Bush completely overthrew a country for even flirting with weapons of mass destruction, and was equally unsuccessful at intimidating North Korea into denuclearization.

But ultimately, perception is reality. Maybe Trump, as Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro have written for Foreign Policy, really is better at executing a "peace through strength" doctrine than his predecessors were. Or maybe he's taking the "madman" theory of international relations to a whole new level. 

Regardless of how he's doing it, if Trump has China and other key players convinced his bluster's not a bluff, that might be just the leverage he needs to make the deal of a lifetime.