Commentary / World

Trump’s floundering North Korea strategy

by Christopher R. Hill

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This aphorism, often attributed to Albert Einstein, seems to be the inspiration for U.S. President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy. Trump’s approach has been to reject everything that came before him, while involving himself in negotiations to an unprecedented degree. As a result, the U.S. secretary of state has been reduced to little more than a Sherpa for his master’s summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The question, though, is whether Trump’s unique approach is actually yielding any results. As of now, there has been nothing to suggest that North Korea is changing its ways. But with another Trump-Kim summit expected some time in the next few months, we might soon have more clarity on the matter.

Trump claims to have mastered the art of nuclear negotiation — if not the details, then at least its fundamental essence. In March, he interrupted a meeting between his then-national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, and a South Korean delegation to reveal, out of the blue, that he would gladly meet with Kim. He has since followed his own star, always asserting that great progress is being made. After his first summit with Kim in June, he declared, “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

In fact, there has been no progress toward denuclearization. In mid-December 2017, Kim announced that his country had completed its missile-test program, having proven that the latest Hwasong intercontinental missiles are ready for deployment.

By making these announcements, Kim may have been suggesting that he was ready to pursue his goal of ending the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions regime through non-military means. But he also might have intended his statements to be taken at face value, simply to let the world know that North Korea had developed both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

Despite these different possible interpretations, the Trump administration seized on Kim’s statements as a sure sign that North Korea is ready to disarm. And this leap of logic seemed to gain more credence at the summit in June, where Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

But, of course, all the United States really got from the summit was a vaguely worded joint statement. The North Koreans, by contrast, made real progress toward their own goal of weakening the U.S. presence in Northeast Asia. Most notably, Trump suddenly seemed to endorse the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, and he has since canceled U.S. military exercises with South Korea.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans have engaged in random acts of “denuclearization” by closing nuclear test sites that the U.S. hasn’t actually asked them to close. While these acts of decommissioning make for good imagery, they are not a part of any organized effort to identify and dismantle core elements of the country’s nuclear program. At the same time, the North Koreans continue to insist that their nuclear arsenal is a defensive response to “hostile” U.S. policies. The implication is that if the U.S. removes its troops from the Korean Peninsula, some degree of denuclearization could follow.

Complicating matters further, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has embraced the view that strong incentives and deeper integration are more effective than sanctions for bringing about denuclearization. Thus, in its ongoing parallel talks with the North, it has essentially decoupled inter-Korean diplomacy from the nuclear issue.

Still, South Korea has also continued to act as a broker between the U.S. and the Kim regime. Whenever the U.S.-North Korean talks have hit a snag, Moon has stepped in to revive them, often by throwing bouquets to both Kim and Trump as encouragement to continue. But while the U.S. and South Korea have remained in close contact, North Korea has most likely been trying to create tensions between the two allies by telling them each slightly different things.

For its part, the Trump administration has done a good job of maintaining the U.S. alliance with South Korea. To this day, many Koreans blame the U.S. and other outside forces for Korea’s tragic division, and the Trump administration has been careful not to criticize Moon’s inter-Korean dialogue publicly. That said, it is clear that the inter-Korean talks are making it increasingly difficult to apply pressure on the North, especially now that South Korea has begun to explore the possibility of sanctions relief.

The last major player is China, which doesn’t seem to know what to make of the North Korean denuclearization process. China’s decision to punish South Korea for hosting a U.S. missile-defense system greatly diminished its standing among the South Korean public and undermined its ability to influence South Korean policies. But in the months leading up to the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, China hosted Kim twice, and again immediately afterward, effectively reasserting its influence over the North.

In keeping with his effort to break from his predecessors in every way, Trump seems to believe that it is easier to work against China than to work with it. That proposition is sure to be tested in the weeks and months ahead.

Christopher R. Hill, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is a professor at the University of Denver, and the author of “Outpost.” © Project Syndicate, 2018.