January 5, 2018 6:01 am
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There was no shortage of major foreign policy crises to choose from in 2017, but the rapid escalation of tensions with North Korea — and the threat of nuclear war behind them — stood out from the rest. It’s also one into which President Trump, an iconoclastic leader who disdains diplomacy and styles himself both a businessman and a brawler, has thrown himself with abandon.
But as Trump’s first year in office draws to a close, the president is starting to look like a bystander in the situation on the Korean Peninsula. He warned for months that negotiations wouldn’t work, preferring to threaten “fire and fury” for Pyongyang and emphasizing his ability to “totally destroy” North Korea. Then on Wednesday, Trump reversed course and issued an early morning tweet that simultaneously defended his tough rhetoric while offering support for potential talks between North Korea and South Korea.
With all of the failed “experts” weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total “might” against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2018
The hints of a turning point in the crisis were confirmed later in the day. In the afternoon, the United States and South Korea announced that they would postpone joint military exercises until after next month’s Winter Olympics, which will be held in the South Korean region of PyeongChang. The United States had long balked at moving these exercises, a frequent demand of the North. Then, in the evening, came news from Seoul that North Korea has officially agreed to hold “high-level” talks next week.
All of these events suggest that decision-making is in the hands of Pyongyang and Seoul rather than Washington. The first public signal that talks were back on the table had come from Kim Jong Un. During his annual New Year’s address, Kim said he hoped the PyeongChang Games would be a success, adding that he would look into sending a delegation.
The message was received warmly by many South Koreans, who hope that the presence of North Korean athletes and officials at the games would deter provocations from Pyongyang and provide space for wider talks. South Korean President Moon Jae-in quickly seized upon the idea. Moon’s unification minister, Cho Myong-gyon, proposed that the two Koreas meet next week at the shared border village of Panmunjom, a move that apparently prompted North Korea to reopen a “hotline” that the two countries use to talk across the border.
Trump’s reaction, however, was markedly different. Instead of noting Kim’s Olympic overture, Trump focused on a part of the speech in which the North Korean leader said that he “always has the nuclear launch button on his office desk.” In a now-infamous tweet, the president responded that his own nuclear button was “much bigger & more powerful” — a startlingly undiplomatic message even by the standards of Trump’s brusque style.
Of course, supporters of Trump’s North Korea policy might say that’s the point. As North Korean weapons tests showed off ever-improving capabilities over the past year, Trump’s rhetoric has hardened remarkably — becoming a virtual mirror image of North Korea’s bellicose propaganda in some instances. The president has also contradicted members of his own administration — most clearly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who left open the possibility of negotiating with Pyongyang — while threatening war and dramatically tightening sanctions.
The aim, the supporters suggest, is to put as much pressure on North Korea as possible and force it into talks with little leverage, a policy that has been dubbed “maximum pressure and engagement.” Beyond Trump’s threats, there has been some subtle diplomacy to more rigidly enforce sanctions and cut off North Korea’s many illicit economic ties to the world. Some key allies, most notably Japan’s Shinzo Abe, are on board with the strategy.
But there’s one major flaw in this policy (aside, of course, from the prospect of an accidental nuclear war): What if South Korea doesn’t back it? Many South Koreans — in particular those who support Moon and his liberal Democratic Party — have been dismayed by Trump’s rhetoric. Seoul lies just 30 miles from the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas, putting the 25 million people who live in its metropolitan area at severe risk if fighting were to break out. One Pew poll conducted last year found that more than three-quarters of South Korean respondents consider Trump “dangerous.”
Trump has further alienated many South Koreans by threatening to withdraw from the United States’ free-trade agreement with the country, although a relatively contrite appearance before South Korea’s parliament in November did mend some bridges. If the rift between the United States and South Korean leadership were to widen, it could have big implications for North Korea — at the least, buying Pyongyang more time to develop its weapons systems.
There is plenty of suspicion that North Korea’s willingness to talk is simply meant to drive the wedge even further between South Korea and the United States. But some experts do see hope. Robert Carlin and Joel Wit, both former U.S. negotiators on North Korea, wrote for 38 North that there are a number of reasons to believe Pyongyang is “very serious” in its push for talks. Others, such as former Treasury Department official Anthony Ruggiero, suggest that the United States has given up too much by delaying the joint exercise.
North Korea rejected “freeze for freeze” and got something better: “delay for nothing.” Pyongyang continues its nuclear and missile programs and US-South Korea delay defensive military exercises. https://t.co/uCUQEtRF2C
— Anthony Ruggiero (@_ARuggiero) January 4, 2018
But whatever happens, it does look like U.S. policy on North Korea is rubbing up against the limitations of Trump’s unilateralist view of the world — what Evan Osnos of the New Yorker recently dubbed “retreating from the front.” When Seoul-Pyongyang talks go ahead next week, Trump will be in an unusual position — watching from afar, having capitulated on one key North Korean demand.
The Trump administration had hoped to further isolate North Korea on the world stage. Thanks to Trump’s brash tactics, though, it may be the United States that ends up on the outside.
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