By Jonathan Cristol
The most dangerous actor on the Korean peninsula lives in a neoclassical white house 5,182 miles from Pyongyang. The North Korean state-run media says that this person’s knowledge of North Korea is at “an elementary student level”; and for once Pyongyang’s state run propaganda has gotten something right. President Donald Trump’s needlessly confusing rhetoric about both Koreas is dangerous and destabilizing; and in light of South Korean president-elect Moon Jae-in’s more accommodationist approach to Pyongyang, the need for a coherent American North Korean policy is greater now than ever.
Last week, Trump said that he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean president, and “smart cookie,” Kim Jong Un. Trump is not wrong. Kim is both rational and smart; but it is one thing to acknowledge that our adversary is not a “crazy fat kid,” as Sen. John McCain once called him, and another to use a term of endearment to describe a totalitarian dictator.
This is not the first time Trump has suggested direct talks with Kim. On March 3, 2013, he said, “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea [to call Kim]. It’s not a very big deal to make a phone call.” On May 18, 2016, he said, “I would speak to him, I would have no problem speaking to him.” Then, in an uncharacteristic show of modesty, on June 15, 2016, Trump said, “I’ll speak to anybody … There’s a 10 percent or 20 percent chance I could talk him out of having his damn nukes.” This perspective appears to be a relatively dovish approach to North Korea.
Trump has also articulated a different view of Kim Jong Un and the possibility of conflict. On April 27, he said there could be a “major, major” conflict with North Korea. He has also called Kim a “whack job” (April 6, 2013), a “maniac” (Sept. 16, 2015), and said that North Korea is “getting more and more crazy” (July 21, 2016). Perhaps most famously, on Jan. 2, 2017, he tweeted that “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
Does Trump think Kim is a lunatic, or that he is a sane, sensible leader? This question matters. If he is a madman who will rain hellfire down on the region and the world, then he must be stopped at all costs. If he is a rational leader who wishes only to ensure the survival of his regime, then he can be contained and perhaps even bargained with (though personally, I am skeptical of negotiations). How the U.S. approaches North Korea depends on whom we think we’re dealing with.
Trump’s “honor” and “smart cookie” statements were not the only two ill-advised statements Trump made this week. He repeatedly attacked our close ally South Korea. He revisited his long-standing belief that Seoul should pay the U.S. protection money, and that South Korea was ripping us off through the KORUS free trade agreement.
He said that Seoul should pay the $1 billion for the defense system known as THAAD, which prompted National Security Adviser, and designated grown up, H.R. McMaster to call Seoul and reassure South Korea that we would live up to our agreement to pay for THAAD. It is perhaps important to note that THAAD’s deployment is designed to protect the area in which U.S. forces would land in the event of a war with the North, not South Korean population centers. Trump has sought protection money from Seoul for years. On March 9, 2013 he asked (via Twitter), “How much is South Korea paying the U.S. for protection against North Korea???? NOTHING!” And just a month later he asked, “I ask again, how much is very wealthy South Korea paying the United States for protecting it against North Korea?” The answer depends on how the figure is calculated, but South Korea contributes both financially and militarily to the maintenance of the U.S.-ROK alliance.
Uncertainty about Trump—Will he escalate with or capitulate to the North? Will he abandon the South? Is Trump outsourcing U.S. Asia policy to Beijing?—may have helped lead to the election of Moon Jae-in in South Korea’s presidential election. Moon advocates distance from the United States and greater accommodation with North Korea. A return to accommodation known as the Sunshine Policy may be dangerous, as North Korea has used every past period of negotiation and increased cooperation to expand its nuclear program, but in light of uncertainty both about the United States position on North Korea and its commitment to South Korea it is certainly understandable why accommodation would receive a new look in Seoul.
Trump’s contradictory statements about both North and South Korea have real consequences. Does he consider South Korea a close American ally and alliance partner, or does he consider it an economic competitor from whom we must squeeze every won?
Does he consider Kim Jong Un to be a rational actor who care about his own survival? Or does he think he is some evil villain bent on destroying Portland and Seattle out of some sort of deeply held disdain for hipsters and computer programmers?
The experts, military, and the cabinet might all have reassuring words for Seoul, but when it can all be undone by a presidential tweet, and Trump takes his advice on the region from the Chinese president and Fox News, I fear that the level of uncertainty in Seoul could lead to a return to the failed and dangerous policy of accommodation.
Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at World Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathancristol
[Photo courtesy of David Eerdmans]