What are Trump's Options for North Korea?

2017 was full of hype about the risk of thermonuclear war or (somehow) World War III as the war of words between Trump and Kim of North Korea reached a boiling point. For all the criticism Trump received for tough talk and saber-rattling, he seems to be getting just as much flak for deciding to sit down and talk to Kim. Nonwithstanding, of course, the pretty typical flip-flopping: Obama offers to talk to North Korea without preconditions, conservatives freak out. Now Trump does it, liberals freak out (along with some conservatives, such as Ben Shapiro or the American Spectator). So let's take a minute and cut through the sports-team politics and get into the meat.

Trump's Difficult Situation

When Clinton, Bush, and Obama were mulling talks with North Korea (Clinton sent Secretary of State Madeline Albright to talk instead of himself, and the other two presidents engaged in lower-level diplomatic talks), North Korea was working on nuclear weapons. Over those 3 presidencies, North Korea's nuclear capability has greatly accelerated: it is now possibly very close to having a nuclear payload that it can deliver with a long-range ballistic missile to South Korea, Japan, or parts of the United States (we discuss this at length in a podcast episode). South Korea and the United States have tried various combinations of pressure, sanctions, threats, bribes, and deals to get North Korea to denuclearize. Kim Jong Il even televised blowing up a nuclear reactor as parts of his denuclearization effort. But North Korea just got right back on to building, and is now for the first time in a position that it can credibly threaten the US and its allies with nuclear weapons.

One could say without much conjecture that the previous 3 presidents' attempts to denuclearize North Korea have failed, and Trump is left in a very tough spot: North Korea is threatening, it has more bargaining power than ever, and the US is running out of time to keep North Korea from being fully capable of launching a nuclear weapon across the Pacific.

What are Trump's Actual Options?

In short (let me know if I'm missing anything):

  1. Apply more sanctions or other economic tools to create enough pain to get North Korea to change its ways in exchange for some normalization
  2. Use a preemptive military strike to destroy North Korea's nuclear capability and then open talks from a better position (we discussed this in the same podcast episode), using either conventional or nuclear weaponry (the latter to increase the likelihood of destroying the whole arsenal)
  3. Use a preemptive strike to decapitate the leadership and hope that whoever boils to the top is now going to play ball
  4. Attempt to engage in lower-level diplomatic talks to create a carrot-based deal like Clinton, Bush, and Obama did
  5. Set preconditions for lower-level talks
  6. Set preconditions for higher-level talks
  7. Have higher-level talks without preconditions
  8. Apply new sanctions/pressure/bargaining chips and then have talks in any of the 4 ways above
  9. Do nothing or nothing much

What are the Problems with All of These?

One issue Trump has that others didn't have (or didn't think they had, even though they do) is that time is more critical: North Korea is closer to being able to strike the US than it was, and time is on North Korea's side; time will naturally make North Korea's position stronger. This is probably an issue for lower-level talks. Similarly, they have seemed to not work in the past. 

Direct talks are unpredictable, in part because Trump is unpredictable: what will he walk away having said or promised, and what repercussions will there be?

Some of the criticism for offers of direct talks without preconditions is that it "legitimizes" the Kim regime because the US is treating it like an equal. I am honestly (and am speaking my mind a bit here) somewhat skeptical of this interpretation because I don't exactly see the Kim regime being in need of legitimization at home. A regime on shaky footing among its people would be a different story. But the other risk to this approach is that it could reward bad behavior: if you act out, you get the US President to come to the table, and they might give you something real good.

A preemptive strike is of course full of complications, and is highly unpredictable in its outcome. The thing about war is both sides get to decide how things go. North Korea has already equipped itself with conventional armaments that would allow it to pummel Seoul with artillery if it was attacked, and that threat has been an effective deterrent for decades.

Trump doesn't have much in the way of clean moves. Previous presidents could experiment with lower-level talks and deals to see what happens--and because the stakes seemed lower, they weren't blasted by the media for the fact that their efforts failed. 

Different Ways of Interpreting Trump's Options and Behavior

The fact that liberals and conservatives respond so differently to Obama's and Trump's offers for talks shows us just how much storytelling is involved in our interpretations of what people do. You can choose to view Trump's actions through the lens of him being a highly experienced super-negotiator, or through the lens of an unpredictable and politically amateurish child. We can apply a much more nuanced view to his behavior than either of these.

Looking at Trump's situation with a sympathetic light, one could say that he has to try something new--his predecessors failed. On March 6th, South Korea reported that Kim Jong-Un declared that he was ready to negotiate with the US on abandoning his nuclear weapons, where before that he was not willing. This signal on March 6th comes just weeks after Trump announced new sanctions against North Korea in late February and warned of a "phase two" of even more if North Korea didn't respond positively. All that of course comes after the US sent 3 aircraft carriers to the Korean Peninsula and made clear it was willing to use military force if necessary. In this interpretation, Trump is doing what he does best as a deal-maker: create a situation in which is it painful not to come make a deal with him, and thereby reduce his partner's bargaining power. As for preconditions: Trump probably doesn't believe he can get preconditions, but he trusts his ability to make real progress at the bargaining table.

In a less sympathetic light, going to the bargaining table is bad game theory (while this article is interesting it is worth noting that it doesn't offer any good alternatives). Trump is childish and image-conscious, and so is Kim: it's a recipe for disaster putting two such personalities in a room together. They'll grow frustrated that the other isn't pandering to his ego, and walk away more likely to do something stupid for the sake of that ego. And worse, by offering to talk directly to North Korea, the US looks weak and desperate. Leave the negotiating to the diplomats, and at least get Russia and China there with you so that you can apply more economic pressure. 

The drama circling the Trump/Kim relationship means that the interpretation will be dramatic. In reality, any president would be in a tight spot and might have to get creative about denuclearizing North Korea: given the progress NK made over the past decades, the US is in a worse negotiating position. If the US cannot credibly claim that it is comfortable with a fully nuclearlized North Korea, then NK has more bargaining power than it did with Clinton, Bush, or Obama. At this point, Trump has many bad options. Whether he's the man for the job in this difficult negotiation is going to be a question that history answers. But as you praise or condemn each of Trump's moves, consider always what alternatives he had available to him, and what history he is dealing with.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.