Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

North Korea: A Case Study in Geopolitical Incompetence

Everything wrong with Donald Trump shows up in his diplomacy with North Korea.
December 18, 2019
North Korea: A Case Study in Geopolitical Incompetence
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 30 (SOUTH KOREA OUT): A handout photo provided by Dong-A Ilbo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the South and North Korea on June 30, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un briefly met at the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Sunday, with an intention to revitalize stalled nuclear talks and demonstrate the friendship between both countries. The encounter was the third time Trump and Kim have gotten together in person as both leaders have said they are committed to the "complete denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula. (Handout photo by Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Poking its nuclear finger in America’s eye, twice this month North Korea announced a “very important test” at its missile testing and launch site—most likely, analysts say, an advanced engine for long-range ballistic missiles.

To underscore its defiance, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations proclaimed that “denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiating table”— a fine holiday greeting for the residents of San Francisco and Seattle.

But no worries. Consulting the funhouse mirror of geopolitical reality lodged exclusively in his own head, President Donald Trump reiterated that he and the murderous Kim Jong-Un remain on friendly terms. Wrapping this happy observation in a previously underutilized gift for understatement, Trump added: “The relationship is very good, but you know, there is a certain hostility…”

Thanks for noticing, Mr. President.

For nearly 3 years, Kim Jong-Un has accelerated his development of an intercontinental nuclear threat while President Trump has conducted kabuki summitry motivated not by the dictates of geopolitics, but by the mores of reality TV.

True, North Korean nuclear conundrum has flummoxed every American president since Bill Clinton.. But Trump has managed to make it infinitely worse.

His serial stupidities have dramatically increased Kim’s military and diplomatic leverage; de-stabilized the Korean Peninsula; empowered China; encouraged nuclear proliferation; alienated our closest Asian allies, South Korea and Japan; and greatly undermined America’s national security. So it is useful to deconstruct the surreal compound of myopia and ego through which Trump turned a potentially volatile region into a global tinder box in-waiting.

By 2017, North Korea had accelerated its nuclear weapons program: First, by successfully launching missiles potentially capable of reaching the United States. Second, by testing what it called a hydrogen bomb. In response, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”—an explicit threat of a nuclear attack.

While this bluff spooked much of the Western world, it did not unnerve Kim. He seems to have understood that Trump has a dysfunctional pattern of behavior: He creates an attention-getting crisis, and then proposes himself as the one-man solution. So in early 2018, Kim invited Trump to negotiate directly; startling his advisors, Trump accepted.

No American president had ever parlayed with a North Korean leader. In the absence of real diplomatic progress, such a meeting merely grants the leader of a brutal regime new credence on the world stage – without extracting anything of value for America.

No matter to Trump, transfixed by the prospect of a made-for-TV summit featuring “Trump” as the superhero, performing feats beyond the stunted ken of every prior president. In June of 2018, Trump met with Kim in Singapore.

Fictive wonders ensued. Proclaiming that the homicidal Kim was an honorable negotiating partner, Trump promised to suspend American military exercises with South Korea. Immersed in self-adoration, Trump then declared: “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

This was, of course, a dangerous falsehood. As a comedic sidelight, Trump showed Kim a video portraying all the resort development which could stem from denuclearization—confirming suspicions that, for Trump, all the world is Mar-a-Lago. What Trump failed to grasp is that North Korea’s nuclear program was sufficiently advanced that, at that particular moment, Kim had no need to stage further tests.

But reality swiftly surfaced. There were no concessions to the United States. There was no timetable for denuclearizing North Korea. For Trump, however, these were ancillary details. The meeting alone, he trumpeted, should earn him his version of a kid’s sports participation award, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Not so much. In short order, North Korea denounced America’s “gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” Kim then offered a dazzling consolation prize: He wanted to build on the “friendly relationship and trust” he had established with Trump. Translation: Kim wanted to deal exclusively with an American president he had sized up as a dupe.

Clearly, Kim had grasped Trump’s motivations—that he was content with superficial PR triumphs so long as Kim did not humiliate him with long-range tests which threatened the U.S. mainland. The payoff for Kim was obvious: the chance to continue to develop his nuclear arsenal while dividing Trump from America’s increasingly anxious Asian allies. But even Kim seems not to have understood how pathetically pliable Trump could be.

When 2018 passed without any progress at more modest levels of negotiation, Trump sought another summit. He got one, in Vietnam—and an utterly predictable fiasco.

In the days before the summit, North Korea demanded an end to economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations since 2016. In return, North Korea offered only to give up one aging nuclear facility, and even that on very uncertain terms. A normal diplomatic mind with an understanding of geopolitics would have taken that as a sign that the summit was hopeless.

Not Trump. Mesmerized by the presumptive power of his own personality, Trump proposed an end to sanctions in exchange for all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, materials and facilities. This was a deal which, in essence, North Korean leaders have rejected for a quarter century. Their reasoning was understandable: North Korea believes that retaining a nuclear arsenal is necessary to its survival—a premise justified by the fate of Muammar Qaddafi.

Realists know that. But Trump was enraptured with Kim’s “beautiful letters,” openly declaring that at that first summit “we fell in love.” For Kim, however, love is never having to say you’re sorry.

At the Vietnam summit, Kim repeated the offer to yield the one aging facility—thereby excluding missiles, warheads and weapon systems secreted elsewhere from any deal and allowing North Korea to continue enriching uranium at several suspected sites. In exchange, Kim demanded the sanctions relief which could fund the production of even more menacing systems.

At the insistence of his advisors, Trump refused to completely capitulate, and returned to Washington with nothing.

At which point Kim resumed testing weapons.

Amazingly, Trump rewarded this provocation with a new gift. In late June, he became the first American president to set foot in North Korea—meeting an obviously delighted Kim at the DMZ. “Big moment, big moment,” Trump exulted, adding that “tremendous things” were happening,

They weren’t. Instead, Trump piled on the fatuities, assuring his newly-minted peer that: “We met and liked each other from day one, and that was very important.” On the way home, Trump tweeted: “Leaving South Korea after a wonderful meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor.”

A great honor for whom? Surely it was for Kim. Perhaps not so much for a president of the United States who, when summoned, flew across the globe to meet a dictator on his doorstep.

As for progress, there was none. Once more Kim had been elevated from international pariah to a central player on the world stage, in return for nothing but the same promise he had already made: to talk about a “denuclearization”—a term so vacuous that it remained wholly undefined.

As ever, Trump had conflated camera time with achievement. East Asia specialist Abraham Denmark put it well:

This is diplomacy as a reality show—devoid of substance, purely driven by the pursuit of faux-historic photo ops. By casting a potential summit meeting in the DMZ as a last-minute opportunity to just say “hi,” President Trump can minimize any expectations of tangible progress but maintain a sense that the diplomacy with Kim Jong Un continues.

What did continue was North Korean missile testing. In an “interview” with that master geopolitician Sean Hannity, Trump explained that this was perfectly fine: “They haven’t done nuclear testing, they really haven’t tested missiles other than, you know, smaller ones.”

Japan and South Korea, who live in range of “smaller ones,” were less blasé. Inconveniently, Japan further noticed that these tests were designed to defeat Japanese missile defenses.

Here Trump had fallen into a trap to which he seemed indifferent. In Singapore, he claimed, Kim had committed to refrain from testing ICBMs—a “promise” which excluded other missile technologies. Such as “smaller ones.” Vipin Narang, an MIT professor who studies North Korean weapons advances, notes that the projectiles being tested in North Korea now “are mobile-launched, they move fast, they fly very low and they are maneuverable. That’s a nightmare for missile defense. And it’s only a matter of time before those technologies are migrated to longer-range missiles.”

Like the kind, to pick a not-so-random example, which can reach the United States.

As for the talks Kim had promised, they were summarily stonewalled by the North Koreans. The day after they broke down, North Korea declared it would not engage in “sickening negotiations” until America committed to “an irreversible withdrawal of hostile policy.” Further, they set a deadline: If the U.S. did not change its ways by January 1, 2020, relations with North Korea “may immediately come to an end.”

By then the unwholesome dynamic was klieg-lit. After a year and a half of negotiations, North Korea had made no concessions whatsoever. Why should they, when they are dealing with Donald Trump?

The alarm of our Asian allies has deepened; the sophistication of the weapons shadowing South Korea and Japan increased. When Japanese Prime Minister Abe said as much, the North Korean state media helpfully responded that “Abe may see what a real ballistic missile is in the not distant future and under his nose. Abe is none other than a perfect imbecile and a political dwarf.”

But Trump continued to imagine himself as a colossus on the world stage. After holding three widely-televised meetings with his cuddly inamorata, Trump somehow failed to notice that Kim had improved his arsenal, further threatening our allies and U.S. troops stationed abroad. Perhaps Trump really does believe that, in a sunburst of affection, Kim will eventually scrap his weapons and start building luxury hotels on his heavily armed coastline.

But not quite yet.

In early November, North Korea warned America against conducting further joint military drills with our ally, South Korea. To help us celebrate Thanksgiving, it launched two missiles from what it described as “a super large mobile rocket launcher.” For emphasis, it promised “shocking punishment” for America if we do not meet Kim’s New Year’s deadline for behavior modification, and began dropping hints about an unwelcome Christmas gift.

One expects that the regime is bluffing. But, for them, so far so good. In an effort to placate Kim, Trump did, indeed, postpone joint drills with our South Korean ally. Consider that for a moment: A belligerent adversary demands that the United States not conduct joint-defense exercises with one of our threatened allies—and our president complies.Overall, Trump has done a great deal to raise Kim’s expectations, and virtually nothing to push back.

Plainly Kim believes that Trump’s thirst for a foreign policy “victory” will lead him to make further concessions while treating our long-standing allies with disdain. And in the wake of Trump’s feckless unilateralism, the international sanctions regime against North Korea is eroding.

Swiftly, Trump’s options have deteriorated from bad to worse. What happens to the balance of diplomacy, one must ask, if North Korea openly debuts an ICBM which can reach America tipped with a hydrogen bomb? What concessions will Trump make then?

Last week delivered an ominous harbinger. Stepping up the insults, the country’s chief negotiator called Trump a “heedless and erratic old man” and pledged that North Korea would not give up its nuclear program because of U.S. pressure.

Trump ‘s response? He did exactly what Kim wanted him to do: The U.S. blocked a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to examine human rights abuses by North Korea, thus confirming, Foreign Policy magazine reported, Trump’s desperate desire to “salvage a faltering two-year diplomatic effort to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and try to strike a deal . . . before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.”

Trump’s about-face reversed efforts by the Obama administration to enlist international support for holding North Korea responsible for mass atrocities and other gross human rights abuses. Said the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch:

Once again, the U.S. has prevented the U.N. Security Council from scrutinizing North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, apparently because of President Trump’s special relationship with Kim Jong-Un . . . By blocking this meeting . . . the Trump Administration is sending a message to Kim that the U.S. the no longer considers arbitrary detention, starvation, torture, summary executions, sexual violence and other crimes against the North Korean people a priority.

Trump’s perverse pas de deux with a dictator will not, cannot, end well for the region. Or for America itself.

But coddling Kim is only the beginning of his dangerous follies. Even worse is that Trump has treated our Asian allies with a casual contempt that is not only dishonorable, but which further endangers both their security and ours.

With the mindless hostility he reserves for America’s friends, Trump is now demanding that South Korea pay roughly 400 percent more to underwrite the presence of U.S. forces on the peninsula. This demand is both stupid and venal: While Trump puts the cost of maintaining those forces at $5 billion, the Pentagon estimates that the actual cost is $2 billion. Thus officials at State and Defense are being forced to scramble for creative fictions to justify a number Trump plucked from thin air.

The reality is that South Korea is far from a deadbeat. This year, it contributed about $923 million, a healthy 2.6 percent of its GDP, to defense. Moreover, South Korea spent an additional $10 billion to build the largest U.S. military base outside of America.

CNN reports that in the face of Trump’s demand, Pentagon officials are “beside themselves,” while their Korean counterparts are “outraged.” Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations living in Korea, says baldly: “It’s just extortion. It’s little more than a mob boss going around demanding protection money. The numbers that the U.S. is demanding are politically impossible for [South Korea and Japan] to swallow and that is just fueling resentment.”

Indubitably. A recent poll showed that 96 percent of South Koreans opposed Trump’s demands; their confidence in America’s president has declined from 88 percent for Barack Obama to 44 percent for Trump. Says the speaker of South Korea’s national assembly: “If the United States believes that it doesn’t need an alliance with the Republic of Korea, I would say it’s okay. If the United States doesn’t want the alliance, we don’t have to beg for it.”

Overnight, Trump has stoked anti-Americanism in one of our stoutest—and most geostrategically important—allies. Little wonder that negotiations to resolve the dispute broke down in November—one month before the deadline for a new agreement. As MIT’s Vipin Narang tartly observes: “Nothing says I love you like a shakedown.”

Indeed,Trump’s demand is so beyond the politically possible that South Korean officials fear it may actually be a pretext for withdrawing American troops from the region—perhaps as a further concession in Trump’s courtship of Kim. Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that Trump’s position “raises questions about the credibility of the United States as a protector, as an alliance partner.”

The withdrawal of American troops from South Korea would leave the South even more vulnerable to nuclear blackmail by the North than it already is. But pulling out of South Korean would gravely damage our own national security, too

American troops in South Korea serve as a prime deterrent against a nuclear attack by Kim, or his use of nuclear leverage in diplomacy. Here Trump ignores that a principal purpose of our deployment in South Korea is not altruism, but self-defense. One example: By operating within Korea we can detect a nuclear launch within seconds, instead of minutes—an advantage which makes such a launch less likely.

Beyond all this, Trump’s posturing creates a strategic opening for China. Before he issued his demand, South Korea had allowed the U.S. to station an advanced missile defense system to intercept North Korea’s ballistic missiles. China vehemently objected to this system because America’s radar was also capable of penetrating Chinese territory. Nonetheless, South Korea defied China—the country with a stone’s throw away with a billion people and a new blue-water navy—and stood by us.

But now China sees our strains with South Korea as a wedge which they can use to displace America as the dominant force in Asia. It’s working. This month China and South Korea agreed to “foster bilateral exchanges and cooperation in defense.” Concurrently, the Korea Times warned that our security alliance with South Korea “may fall apart due to Washington’s blatantly excessive demands.” Amazingly, Trump has made it possible to imagine China displacing the U.S. as South Korea’s protector and interlocutor with the North.

And then there’s Japan. The Japanese are certain—and almost certainly correct—that North Korea has miniaturized nuclear warheads for which Japan is the primary target. Vipan Narang agrees: “It is Japan that is most threatened, and probably the primary target of such a capability. So openly acknowledging it underscores Tokyo’s acute fears that North Korea’s nuclear program continues to grow unabated with no foreseeable plan to slow its growth, let alone eliminate them.”

But Japan’s alarm is matched by Trump’s cavalier indifference. Blatantly, he treats them as diplomatic detritus, an inconsequential afterthought in his fevered courtship of Kim.

When Trump visited Japan in May, Prime Minister Abe issued a muted plea for help: “On May 9, North Korea launched short-range ballistic missiles, and that’s a violation of the U.N. Security Council’s resolution, so, as I’ve been saying, this is a quite regrettable act.” Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, agreed with Abe.

Trump did not. Dismissing Abe, he expressly accepted Kim’s word that there had been no violations, adding that Kim was a “very smart man” and that, therefore, he was not “personally” bothered by North Korea’s short range missile tests.

Piling idiocy on top of injury, Trump said of Kim: “I view it as a man—perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not, who knows. It doesn’t matter. All I know is that there have been no nuclear tests. There have been no ballistic missiles going out. There have been no long-range missiles going out.”

Trump offered no factual predicate for wishing away Japan’s existential problems. Instead, he offered an inane analogy between Kim’s strategic situation and his own background as a developer, saying that North Korea is “located between Russia and China on one side, and South Korea on the other. It’s all waterfront property. It’s a great location, as we used to say in the real estate business.”

Of course, in the real estate business if you miscalculate, you can always take refuge in bankruptcy and then start over. Trump knows a good bit about using the safe harbors of commercial law to mitigate self-made disasters.

The world of geopolitics is somewhat less forgiving. But the analogy holds up in one way: Japan likely feels like one of the countless creditors Trump stiffed over the decades. It should. For years, Japan has been in the forefront of enforcing sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear program, at no small risk to themselves. And now they have Trump’s abandonment to show for it.

Despite Abe’s continued and assiduous overtures to Trump, Japan’s strategic situation has continued to worsen. In late summer, when Abe complained that further North Korea’s missile launches again violated U.N. resolutions, Trump casually allowed that “there may be United Nations violation”—and then said nothing more. In October, North Korea launched a submarine-based ballistic missile within 200 miles of Japan; yet again,Trump reacted with sublime indifference.

Ironically, Abe could wind up cast as the villain in Trump’s diplomacy of self. Says Kristi Govella, an Asian expert at the University of Hawaii: “President Trump has clearly stated that he does not find these short -range missiles to be troubling, so if Prime Minister Abe chooses to press that very assertively, then he could also end up being blamed for scuttling talks between the U.S. and South Korea or otherwise interfering with U.S. strategy or policy in the region.”

As another expert, Ankit Panda, told the New York Times: “The message since 2018 is that Japan is kind of the punching bag.” For sure. And not just by Trump, but by his new best friend. After Trump elevated Kim Jong-Un as a legitimate head of state, Kim met with the leaders of South Korea, China, Russia, Singapore and Vietnam. But not Japan, which Kim treats with utter contempt.

In the meanwhile, with respect to military burden-sharing Trump has made the same extortionate demands on Japan as he did on South Korea. Currently, Japan contributes $2 billion a year to its defense; Trump insists that they quadruple that figure. For Abe, this is politically untenable; here, too, negotiations have reached an impasse.

Which raises the stunning, and hitherto unimaginable, possibility of a nuclear-armed Japan. Which, in turn, creates the specter of North Korea, China, South Korea, and Japan involved in a nuclear arms race, with all the attendant prospects for miscalculation and calamity.

The dangerous fissures in the tripartite alliance between Japan, South Korea, and America are further exacerbated by the revival of historic bitterness between our Asian allies. This began with a festering dispute over Japanese treatment of Koreans during World War II; accelerated with a trade war over high-tech materials; and culminated in the suspension of an important intelligence-sharing agreement which also serves our own security. Given the threat of nuclear North Korea, the timing of this breach could not be worse.

Prior to Trump, the U.S. held quarterly trilateral meetings with the Japanese and the South Koreans, a forum which was used to resolve the disputes which inevitably arise in any alliance. And the intelligence-sharing agreement between Japan and the South was a key component of U.S. strategy in Asia: America had viewed it as a predicate for even closer defense ties between the two countries.

But the U.S. no longer holds such meetings and disavows any role in bringing South Korea and Japan together. To mediate the dispute, Trump complains, would be “like a full-time job.”

Heaven forfend. After all, keeping alliances together and function truly is the worst kind of work: It’s hard, it’s invisible, and presidents get no credit for doing it. Televised summitry with the duplicitous Kim is much easier. One shows up for a day, preens for the cameras, and leaves. Who needs a full-time job when you’re president of the United States?

As a National Security Council official under George W. Bush says, “[Trump] has done nothing to create a sense that there is a team of allies in the region.” Quite the opposite: he is actively alienating our allies from each other—and from us. Argues Patrick Cronin of the Hudson Institute: “Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang—whatever else they’re doing, one thing they are trying to do for sure is find seams in U.S. alliances in the region. Their power grows without doing anything as long as the power of the three democracies is not harnessed. This situation seems very much in both their political and military interests.”

For Trump, empowering America’s adversaries is a virtual reflex. Hence his abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the 12-country trade agreement which Obama created to present a common economic front against China. Instead, China is now free to use trade as a weapon against the U.S. in Asia. Former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns limns the larger danger: “Without the steady centripetal force of American diplomacy, disorder in Asia is spinning in all sorts of dangerous directions. The net result is an increased risk of regional turbulence, but also long-term corrosion of American influence.”

The implications of Trump’s derelictions in East Asia will be felt around the globe. His botched tar turn with Kim and fights with our allies augur a collapse of purpose which will be felt by other allies around the globe, confirming America’s unreliability and upending geopolitical calculations throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. This will further upset the crucial balance between the U.S. and its adversaries that Trump has already done so much to erode.

At bottom, America’s 45th president combines the shriveled soul of a zero-sum real estate operator with the anal-retentive instincts of a brain-dead accountant, conjuring a lethal lens through which he views our enemies as partners and our allies as enemies—little more than a gaggle of leeches sapping America’s economic virility.

Trump epitomizes the old saw about the man who knows the cost of everything, but the value of nothing—neither strategic values like promoting stability, amicable trade, resistance to aggression, or the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; nor moral values like political freedom, human rights, or concern for the welfare of oppressed people.

Unable to see beyond the “winner” he perceives in his distorted mirror of self, Trump is squandering everything which made America great in all the ways which matter most. Kim Jong Un has always seen him whole.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.