Why Trump actually could succeed with North Korea
Barack Obama wasn't kidding when he warned his successor that North Korea is the biggest national security threat the U.S. faces. "No good options" has been the mantra of the deep thinkers, as if we have no choice but to let the Kim dynasty threaten the world with nuclear war from now on. But Donald Trump has never been bound by conventional thinking and brings a healthy skepticism to the pronouncements of the experts who have failed for the past three decades.
Here is a short list of what he is doing differently, and why he might even succeed.
First of all, Trump projects unashamed strength and a willingness to use the unmatched military power of the United States. In an insightful analysis for McClatchy, Andrew Malcolm puts it succinctly:
It's no coincidence that this sudden offer by Kim comes 14 months into the first term of a president who promised to crush ISIS quickly, then unleashed the U.S. military to do just that within the year.
The same president warned Syria against using poison gas. When the regime ignored that, within 48 hours the new commander-in-chief ordered cruise missiles to demolish much of the launching base.
It was a shocking shift from Barack Obama's apologies and erasable red lines that everyone came to understand were enforced by mere words. As bullies sometimes do, Kim seems to have gotten the tougher message, heightened by strict ongoing global enforcement of even more stringent economic sanctions.
One factor that must be understood is that North Korea knows its own weaknesses and expends tremendous efforts in covering them up and creating an illusion for foreigners that it is more powerful than it really is. The skyscrapers; broad, traffic-free boulevards; and gigantic monuments of Pyongyang look best from a distance and contrast starkly with the perpetual near starvation of the rest of the deeply impoverished country. Friends who have visited North Korea have told me of the fanatical efforts their constant North Korean guides (really, minders) take to keep from straying from the appointed course and seeing portions of the capital city that are not carefully primed to look modern and prosperous. Pyongyang is the biggest Potemkin Village in the history of the world.
People (and nations) who put up a false front are painfully aware that the reality is quite different. Kim Jong-un, unlike ex-president Obama, doesn't believe his own b‑‑‑‑‑‑‑. For all his bluster – a North Korean tradition – he knows that his military is no match, and that employing it would be suicidal. And thanks to the constant nattering of Trump's enemies, domestic and foreign, Kim has to consider the possibility that Trump is "crazy" enough to use as much force as necessary.
Another key factor is that Trump has actually engaged China in solving the problem. There is strong evidence that the tightening of sanctions has radically hobbled Kim's ability to function. That is the key to any possibility of getting Kim to drop his nuclear program. He sees nuclear weapons as his guarantee that foreign interests will not overthrow him so, the only thing worse would be domestic forces overthrowing him. That is the button being pushed now, thanks to unprecedented cooperation on China's part, as well as unprecedented Japanese diligence in thwarting North Korean smuggling of drugs into Japan and remittances by the ethnically Korean underworld there that acted as distributors.
How Trump accomplished this change in China's posture was first explained by Scott Adams. Ira Stoll of the New York Sun credits Adams with being the first observer to understand Trump's diplomacy.
In an April 12, 2017, blog post headlined "The North Korea Reframe," Mr. Adams wrote about how Mr. Trump had reframed North Korea as a challenge to China.
"President Trump has said clearly and repeatedly that if China doesn't fix the problem in its own backyard, the USA will step in to do what China couldn't get done," Mr. Adams wrote. "See the power in that framing? China doesn't want a weak 'brand.' ... His reframing on North Korea is pitch-perfect. We've never seen anything like this."
Trump has consistently praised Xi Jinping, now dictator for life, and offered carrots while keeping various sticks available as needed. Two big sticks are the threat of a trade war and the threat of nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea.
Mr. Adams followed up with an April 17, 2017, post headlined "How To Structure a Deal With North Korea." He suggests giving North Korea "a story to save face." He went on, "In persuasion language, you need to give North Korea a 'fake because.' They probably already want peace, but they don't have a good public excuse for why they would cave to pressure and settle for it. Giving them something that has little value but can be exaggerated to seem like it has great value becomes the 'fake because.'"
As with all tyrannical dictatorships, the Kim dynasty's hold on power is absolute until the very moment it dissolves into nothing. Think of the shah of Iran or Romania's Ceaușescu, whose absolute power evaporated almost overnight. When you hold power through fear, any weakness becomes potentially fatal.
The North Korean ruling elite – a group whose inner core numbers in the hundreds (at most) and whose outer circles number a few thousand in a nation of twenty million – understand that the populace despises them and would turn on them in an instant. They look all-powerful and are, but only so long as there is no hope of change for their beleaguered subjects.
In order to keep those hopes dormant, they need to constantly crush any potential opposition. They live in fear of what might happen otherwise.
The reason Kim Jong-un had his half-brother assassinated at Kuala Lumpur Airport is that Korean culture is inherently given to factionalism. For centuries, this has been the way of political power in Korea. Kim Jong-un knows that if he seemed less than certain to prevail, opposing factions might well move to depose him and install another ruler. Thus, he has a constant challenge to keep in line all those who command any source of power: leaders of military units and police corps, principally, but also people in a position to generate or command resources. There are, for instance, the people who manufacture methamphetamines, which has been one of North Korea's chief sources of foreign exchange.
Various accounts of Kim's father's reign, notably the memoirs of his personal sushi chef, have made it clear that the way the Kims kept their toadies (and potential rivals) loyal is through lavish gifts like Rolex watches, Courvoisier cognac, and Mercedes-Benzes, as well as the occasional multi-day orgy with the sex slaves the regime culls from the most attractive young women of the nation.
Now that sanctions are really hitting, there are reports that Kim is running out of the foreign exchange. This factor has led Gordon Chang to offer the astounding prediction of an "85% Chance North Korea Will Promise to Give Up Nukes."
The money flows are not there. We've see [sic], for instance, that Office Number 39 – which is the Kim family slush fund – is running out of cash according to Chinese sources, and South Koreans say that the regime in Pyongyang is not going to have any more foreign currency reserves by October at the current rate of depletion. That's a real indication that the sanctions are working. And that's the reason why I think that Kim Jong-Un actually has come to the table right now – because he wants sanctions relief. ...
The only way any deal with North Korea will work is they have no choice but to comply.
I am not certain the odds are as high as Chang posits, and we have to anticipate that the North Koreans will try to cheat and violate their commitments. But there are ways to deal with that (Chang mentions a full blockade) once China is committed to seeing the deal succeed. While I cannot guarantee that Trump will succeed, he clearly has better odds than any of his presidential predecessors. If he succeeds, next to the abeyance of the threat to world peace, the biggest upside is watching all those progressive and leftist heads explode.