Given these constraints, what are the chances the Trump Administration is successful? Perhaps first it is necessary to define success. A North Korea open to the outside world, integrated into the regional economy, with democratic (or at least not entirely autocratic) political institutions by the end of President Trump’s term in office is obviously a pipe dream. More realistically, success for the President here may simply be that no nuclear weapons are detonated over population centers on his watch. For our purposes, success for the Trump Administration can be defined as some combination of slowing or freezing North Korean nuclear and missile tests and development, meaningful negotiations involving Kim, and fostering cooperation and consistency within America’s East Asian allies and China on this issue. This is certainly a tall diplomatic order, but one that can be had under the right circumstances.
On the campaign trail President Trump identified his intention for US foreign policy to be more “unpredictable.” In some ways it has been exactly that. His presidency thus far has been defined, perhaps to a larger degree than it should be, by his “itchy Twitter finger” and while his tweets may be entertaining at times, with regard to testy foreign policy situations like this one they are downright dangerous. Kim’s paranoia and obsession with survival suggest that his own finger rarely strays far from the nuclear button, and one ill conceived or poorly worded Tweet may cause him to think that his survival is being threatened. The presidential Twitter account has not exactly been the model of forethought or accuracy, so this seems to be a real possibility. Add to this the diplomatic inexperience that pervades the senior White House staff, along with the reported multitude of unfilled positions in governmental departments that might provide them with needed support, and true diplomatic progress in this situation seems highly unlikely.
With that said, there are a few options. First, the President could opt for more or less the status quo, continually imposing and enforcing sanctions aimed at causing internal political strife, forcing Kim to the bargaining table and pressuring him to make concessions. President Trump just might be petty enough to eschew this option simply because it was favored by his predecessor, but even if he does take the high road he will not have to look far to find this option’s drawbacks. As was mentioned above, the North Korean nuclear and missile programs are what they are today at least in part because this approach allowed them to be. From that standpoint, continuing it as is does not make a lot of sense.
Second, President Trump could opt for a harder line approach characterized by tough rhetoric that is validated with action. The short term success that was his April missile strike against the Assad regime in Syria and the accolades he received from government officials and the otherwise highly critical news media in the immediate aftermath, suggest that he may be willing to go down that road again. The president is, by all accounts, very aware of, and sensitive to, his image in the media. It would be wishful thinking to imagine that the good will and positive press he received in early April would not be a factor in the decision making process the next time such an option is on the table. This is a scary proposition since military action against North Korea would likely result in North Korean retaliation against South Korea and/or Japan, massive regional destabilization, and a conflict whose escalation would be difficult to control.
In hopes of avoiding that sequence of events, the president could pursue a third option. This option would include working with China and the new South Korean president to simultaneously put pressure upon and be open to embracing North Korea. It seems that the new South Korean president is open to major changes in the country’s North Korea policy, and that peace on the peninsula is a high priority. His reticence on the THAAD deployment fits with this assessment. For their part, the Chinese figure to be open to this sort of policy as well. They have historically done much to prop up and support the regime for reasons discussed previously, while recently beginning to impose consequences like the coal import freeze. Both countries stand to lose plenty if a military conflict begins (missiles flying toward South Korea and refugees streaming toward China), thus they both figure to be sufficiently motivated to participate in working toward a solution.
A trilateral policy, if done right, could show Kim a measure of respect that he has seldom received from any country, save China perhaps, in decades. It could offer him support on the economic side of his “simultaneous progress” approach, while possibly mitigating the necessity of the security side. To be sure, such a policy would almost certainly require an American presidential administration adept at diplomacy, and for all of President Trump’s purported skill in negotiation and deal making in the business world, major questions remain regarding these aptitudes in the world of politics. He has not shown that he has a grasp of the intricacies of international relations or diplomacy, nor has he demonstrated much knowledge of the histories, cultural or political realities, or geopolitical needs of any foreign states in particular. This is not surprising given his lack of diplomatic or governmental experience, but it means his ability to further American interests in this case is questionable at best.
A nuclear war does not seem imminent, but poor diplomacy, ill conceived tweeting and poorly devised rhetoric, along with the absence of a clear and well designed policy point to this situation getting worse before it gets better. Success at this point seems to hinge upon China and South Korea implementing some of the aforementioned strategies. A combination of political and economic support and pressure from these two countries (if in fact the US fails to make it three) working in concert toward common goals could potentially bring Kim to the negotiating table where changes to his nuclear and missile programs could be agenda items. This cooperation seems possible, given that both countries are interested in peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and that China would likely be in favor of an arrangement that could bring South Korea closer while simultaneously pulling it away from the United States. President Trump’s rhetoric (e.g., suggesting the South Koreans pay for the THAAD system) and actions (e.g., pulling the US out of the Transpacific Partnership) are signals to South Korea that perhaps its staunch ally might not be so staunch anymore. They, therefore, may be more receptive to increased cooperation with the Chinese. How would the Trump Administration view such a relative decline in the American position in East Asia? Will it be able to comprehend the situation, and implement strategies capable of preserving stability and the United States’ regional position? Where do such geostrategic questions rank on the administrations list of priorities? Time will tell.