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Why do we even listen to Trump anymore?



President Trump announced at a meeting with members of Congress on Tuesday that there is no time limit for the North Korean denuclearization. What now?


That means that the last 5 months and all that big talk about a Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) of the nuclear program, the Nobel Peace Prize, ‘this time it is different’, ‘the nuclear threat is over’, etc... it was all just another Trump snow-job.

Good grief. Why do we even listen to this guy anymore?


I know the proposal by Vladimir Putin that the US allow Russia to question the former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is the huge story right now, but this should not slip below the waves: President Trump basically just admitted that we are back to Obama’s strategic patience on North Korea. So, all the threats of last year and the sucking-up of this year didn’t work, as so many predicted.


Obama’s path, which Trump claimed would lead us to a war killing 50 million people, is where Trump has now defaulted back to. Naturally, he won’t admit that, and the MIA returns are good. But basically, we are back to containment and deterrence, sanctions and isolation, until, maybe, the South Korean detente effort works. But that will take a decade or more on nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang certainly won’t give up everything, although maybe we can cap them at their current arsenal if we are lucky.

So, if there is “no rush”, that means we are adapting to a North Korean nuclear weapons state, which is also what many predicted, but Trump and his war cabinet said we could never do. All this was entirely predictable; speaks well of Obama’s post-Leap Day Deal, don’t-deal-with-them-unless-they’re-serious approach; and demonstrates yet again that Trump got rolled in Singapore.

Kim Jong Un got the optics, legitimation, and milex, and Trump got the “We have no time limit. We have no speed limit.” That is what happens when an unprepared, unread President of the United States rushes into something he doesn’t understand.

Kinda sounds like everything else in this administration.


Now, it is all up to South Korean President Moon. Can he actually get nuclear weapons and missile caps without giving away too much? That is the big question. We are seven months into this detente and we still have no idea, which does not bode well, as North Korea notoriously strings out negotiations.


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Since this piece went viral on Twitter, here are some responses to my critics:


1.

Trump got 3 US hostages back; Obama got 10. These are indeed successes, but it hardly validate either’s approach. Recall that North Korea takes hostages precisely to blur the political and strategic issues — nuclear weapons, human rights, missiles — and create the illusion of progress through releases by changing the subject. And US hostages have always been released in the end. Trumpers should stop using this data point.


2.

The testing halt is also progress, but it is not at all clear that this is due to Trump. What effort did Trump make for this to happen? Or did it just so happen that Trump was President of the United States at the time? Recall that Trump is pretty lazy and does not read or prepare. Does anyone remember lengthy White House efforts last year on test ban? No. Because they did not happen. If you want to see what an actual sustained diplomatic effort on North Korea looks like, look at Yun Byung-se’s effort to clip away at North Korea’s diplomatic relationships during Park Geun Hye’s presidency. The Trump White House did nothing like that for a test ban.

I have argued elsewhere that the North Koreans halted and agreed to talk, because they are shopping around for a deal, not because of anything Trump did. This is another specious data point Trump should drop.


3.

No, Obama is not ‘responsible’ for North Korea’s nuclear weapons. By that logic, so are George W. Bush or any of his predecessors. North Korea, Iran, Israel, South Africa and Pakistan all demonstrate that small states whom, like many others, do not want to have nuclear weapons, can nonetheless get them. Both nuclear and missile technologies go back to the 1940s. It is not that hard for a determined state to get them if it really wants them. We can try our mightiest to stop them — sanctions, isolation, constraints like the JCPOA on Iran, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) or sabotage — but, barring the use of force, which the cancellation of JCPOA makes more likely, we have to learn to live with nuclear proliferation.

There is a large literature in international relations theory on deterrence which suggests we can live with a nuclear North Korea, however much we dislike that. The North Korea elite is rational, as are we. Neither will launch against the other unless in total desperation. I argue the worst case scenario here.


So, should George W. Bush have launched an axis of evil regime change war when North Korea first detonated a nuclear weapon in 2006? Should Obama have risked that? Trump only says the problem should have been ‘taken care of long before’ him to blame-shift. None of his predecessors wanted to risk a massive regional conflict, just as he does not. This too is yet another bad faith talking point which Trump should drop.


4.

Don’t read this as some big defense of Obama on North Korea. Strategic patience was basically an admission that our North Korean options are limited, because they often negotiate in bad faith — the Leap Day Deal — and likely wanted to finish the nuclear missile program BEFORE they came to the table. That is why they are talking to us now — their deterrent is reasonable good now — and not because of anything Trump or Moon did.

But I always defended strategic patience because I thought Obama was being honest. Trump, on the other hand, gets a lot of criticism, because he balloons expectations — for example: Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) and a Nobel Peace Prize on North Korea... — but then quietly drops initiatives when they don’t pan out, often as experts predict.

This has been the case on infrastructure, ‘the wall’, China trade, North Korea, and so on.

Actual practice on North Korea under Trump hasn’t been so bad. ‘Maximum pressure’ (i.e. more sanctions) is fine. Perhaps we can trade those for concessions.

Trump’s problems are: the rhetoric — fire and fury, Americans should be more like North Koreans; the wild inconsistency — from fire to fury to a President of the United States summit in just 6 months with no explanation; the obvious animus toward South Korea — unnecessarily floating US troop withdrawal in South Korea; the general feeling of a con-job around the whole thing — Trump’s refusal to prepare or read about North Korea, nuclear weapons, or missiles before the summit in Singapore, that bizarre pseudo-trailer he showed Kim Jung Un, the wildly inaccurate insistence that the North Korean nuclear problem is taken care of.

It is the charlatanism of the whole thing that alienates so many.🔷


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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)


(Cover: Dreamstime/Gints Ivuskans - Donald Trump during press conference at NATO Summit, 12 July 2018.)


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Professor of Political Science, Pusan National University, South Korea. International Relations, Koreas, East Asia.
Busan, South Korea. Website

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