By Markus Bell and Marco Milani
February 22, 2017

In 2016 alone, North Korea tested two nuclear weapons, launched 20 ballistic missiles, sent a satellite into orbit, and made advances in both submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology.

There’s no doubt that a nuclear North Korea will be the biggest foreign policy thorn in Donald Trump’s side. But at the end of his first month in office, even after North Korea’s missile launch earlier this month, he still lacks a plan. It’s going to take more than a few aggressive tweets for Trump to bring North Korea to heel.

Kim Jong-un, the truculent young leader of North Korea, doesn’t mince words. In his 2017 New Year’s address, he warned, “We will continue to build up our self-defense capability, the pivot of which is the nuclear forces, and the capability for preemptive strike…”

North Korea will likely soon be able to reach U.S. mainland targets with its nuclear-tipped ICBMs. Given his forthright approach to matters of state, skeptics are concerned about Trump’s ability to manage sensitive foreign policy matters.

But where previous U.S. administrations have tried and failed with North Korea, Trump’s eagerness to break with diplomatic convention may bring North Korea back to the negotiation table.

From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, a succession of U.S. administrations have sought to end North Korea’s nuclear program.

The Clinton administration was a time of “what-ifs.” A transitioning North Korean leadership was teetering on the brink of collapse and the citizenry were starving. In 1993, defying expectations of regime collapse, North Korea conducted its first successful missile test and threatened to pull out of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Clinton responded by negotiating the 1994 Agreed Framework, demanding (albeit politely) that North Korea pull down the shutters on its nuclear program in return for all of the heavy fuel oil it needed, and two light-water reactors (LWR). Despite opposition from Congress, delayed shipments and a failed effort to reduce economic sanctions, hopes for progress remained until the early 2000s.

George W. Bush came out swinging, labeling North Korea part of an “Axis of Evil” with Iran and Iraq. But Bush’s hardline triggered an escalation that led to the outbreak of a second nuclear crisis and North Korea’s subsequent withdrawal from the NPT. The very violent, very public end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003—and Muammar Gaddafi’s eight years later—provided the North Korean leadership with further motivation for ramping up its nuclear program.

After Clinton’s carrots and Bush’s sticks, Obama’s wait-and-see “strategic patience” reflected wishful U.S. thinking that North Korea would simply work itself out (or just go away). In the end, though, Obama’s patience was enough to pass the problem to his successor, but not enough to roll back North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

Trump’s uncharacteristically muted response to the recent missile launch gives pause for thought. Whether we (or he) like it or not, Trump is now the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. But his presidency is shaping up to be more Andrew Jackson than Washington-insider. The Trump administration is likely to juggle Obama’s hot potato for a while yet, charting a middle ground between Clinton’s dovish Agreed Framework and Bush’s hawkish regime change.

Trump will not succeed if his end game is a denuclearized North Korea. But he has a wild card up his sleeve: He is the first American president in 30 years not pursuing the post-Cold War, end-of-history narrative. The Trump administration doesn’t believe that everything is destined to collapse into the Western-liberal order based on western-style liberal democracies, the free market economy, and globalization. In fact, he has little interest in what ideology U.S. trading or security partners follow. For Trump, ideology comes in second to the bottom line.

Like Obama, Trump lacks a coherent strategy to deal with North Korea. The difference is that Obama was unable to see beyond an ineluctable unipolar narrative of world events. Belief in this inevitability haunted Obama and his predecessors in a way it doesn’t Trump.

For Trump, not all roads lead to an ideologically liberal world order. In place of America’s moral evangelism, Trump is happy to erect the twin pillars of isolationism and protectionism—the unswerving pragmatism of the businessman.

Trump’s ‘splendid pragmatism’ allows him a free hand in dealing with matters of foreign policy. His apparent ease at breaking with diplomatic norms—for instance, in taking Taiwan leader, Tsai Ing-wen’s call, or backing away from longstanding U.S. support for a two-state solution in the Middle East—raised eyebrows. Yet his unorthodox approach is entirely rational for a leader free from the strictures of post-Cold War geo-politics.

If Trump accepts Pyongyang’s nuclear program and talks directly with Kim Jong-un, the deadlock that has plagued successive U.S. administrations might be broken.

Of course, every rose has its thorn, and Trump’s break with traditions could also backfire. The post-Cold War world—in which the U.S. has been the sole superpower—has also been a relatively stable world. In calling off all bets, Trump might be setting the U.S. on a path of confrontation with the new superpower in town: China.

Trump recently commented, “China has … total control over North Korea. And China should solve that problem. And if they don’t solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.”

“We are holding China up,” he added. “They’re taking so much money. They’re draining our country, and they’re toying with us with North Korea.”

Any Trumpian deal with China over North Korea’s nuclear program comes with an appalling level of risk. China is likely the key to bringing North Korea in from the cold, as the excitement over Beijing’s decision to stop buying North Korean coal indicated. But how much pressure China can exert on North Korea before it over-reaches is contentious, particularly when regime survival is at stake.

Before sitting down to decide on the fate of a third country, the U.S. and China need to strike a mutually conciliatory tone. What does each side want? A denuclearized North Korea? Reunification of the divided peninsula? Decapitation of the leadership?

If Trump can’t do this, the “North Korea problem” is likely to metastasize into the “China problem” for future administrations.

Trump has some difficult choices ahead, given that decades of sanctions, threats, isolation, talks, and concessions have had little impact. Another failed foreign policy initiative in Northeast Asia would send a message to its allies that the U.S. is weak. It would also pave the way for China’s expanding regional influence.

Markus Bell is an anthropologist and a lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him @mpsbell. Marco Milani is a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute. Follow him at @MarcoMilani05.

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