When President Trump publicly slapped down his beleaguered secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, last weekend, tweeting that America’s top diplomat was “wasting his time” trying to talk to North Korea about its nuclear and missile program, establishment types greeted the president with the usual yelps of outrage. “This is life-or-death presidential malpractice. How could any diplomat (or human) tolerate being treated as Tillerson is?” former United Nations ambassador Samantha Power tweeted. “Can never remember a president publicly undercutting a secretary of state as Trump just has. Ever,” tweeted Susan Glasser, Politico’s chief international affairs columnist. It was the same tone reserved for the time Trump promised in his U.N. speech to “totally destroy ” North Korea if necessary, and the time he threatened to meet Pyongyang’s threats with “fire and fury.”
Trump, supposedly, is sowing confusion, rendering his diplomats impotent, robbing his administration of credibility and, worst of all, bringing the world to the brink of war without any concept of the danger he is creating. (At a bizarre news conference Wednesday, Tillerson responded to a report that he had called the president a “moron” and pledged to stay in his job.) And it’s true that there are good reasons to wonder whether the president is pursuing any real policy or is impulsively venting his anger over the behavior of “Little Rocket Man,” his epithet for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who hit back by calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
But there may be a method to the apparent madness in Trump’s approach, even if he has not done a coherent job of explaining it. Nuclear experts agree that North Korea’s weapons program, and its threat to U.S. soil, is advancing every day. “Go back three or four years, and no one thought they would be able to do an ICBM this decade, let alone put a warhead on it,” says David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. Now they have the missile, and “it’ll take maybe within six months, 12 months” to put a nuclear warhead on it. Trump’s answer appears to be the bad-cop routine. It comes with certain risks, but it is one of the only strategies for containing Pyongyang that has not yet been tried. And for all we know, it could work.
Trump is right, as he tweeted Oct. 1, that “being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed.” Nearly a quarter-century of negotiations with Kim and his father, Kim Jong Il, by both Republican and Democratic administrations have yielded no progress. Since the 1994 Agreed Framework , the Clinton-era pact under which the North was to get fuel oil, food aid and billions of dollars’ worth of civilian nuclear equipment in return for freezing and “eventually” dismantling its plutonium program, North Korea has used its nuclear program as a bargaining chip to gain Western aid. And every time, it has failed to follow through on its pledges to dismantle the program. The last time there was a real chance to talk Pyongyang out of nukes and intercontinental ballistic missiles, some diplomats believe, was then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s October 2000 visit (which I covered as a Newsweek correspondent); in the 17 years since, nothing has worked. The North Koreans will simply not be negotiated out of their weapons program.
But perhaps Trump is giving Tillerson the ability to persuade North Korea — and just as important, China — that if it doesn’t engage in earnest diplomacy at long last, then the man in the White House could go, well, ballistic. President Richard Nixon pioneered the “madman” approach in foreign policy by suggesting that he might use a nuclear bomb if he couldn’t solve the Vietnam quagmire, allegedly prompting North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh to sue for peace, and by raising America’s nuclear alert status as a warning to Moscow. The scheme didn’t work very well, though Nixon later argued that the alert hastened the Soviets’ willingness to conduct nuclear arms talks. But there are a few reasons a new strategy might be the sensible move now.
First, North Korea’s threat to the United States is not static; it is ratcheting up dangerously with new nuclear, missile and miniaturization technology that for the first time will allow Pyongyang to reach U.S. shores. This alone argues for a new approach. If the president can avoid triggering a preemptive war (a nightmarish prospect that should be dealt with carefully), then his tough rhetoric could force Kim to reckon with an outcome beyond sanctions, which haven’t changed his course and almost certainly will not in the future.
Second, stability-obsessed China is primed to hear this message, and altering its behavior may be the most important objective. Beijing is Kim’s lifeline, accounting for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s trade. Yet China’s leaders have done little more than wrist-slap their neighbor to the east for two decades — including, this year, a painful but not fatal constriction of coal and oil trade and the removal of North Korean businesses from China. It’s fair to conclude, after all this time, that Beijing is not going to change course unless it foresees a real possibility of war. The Chinese know that this would result in the collapse of their only real ally in East Asia, a reunited and vastly more powerful Korea allied with Washington, and a formidable refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border.
No one, perhaps not even Trump, wants a war on the Korean Peninsula, one that could cost hundreds of thousands of lives, including those of American military personnel and tens of thousands of U.S. citizens living in South Korea. But during the Cold War, with far more lives at stake, the United States engaged in occasional tense brinkmanship with the Soviet Union as a matter of policy when it perceived its vital interests to be threatened, most notably during the Cuban missile crisis. A final round of hastily improvised diplomacy resolved that terrifying standoff (with a quiet deal to trade the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba). But diplomacy arguably worked only because President John F. Kennedy was willing to go to the brink of war — in other words, because Washington was prepared to declare that a missile threat from Cuba was so intolerable that it was ready to preemptively open hostilities. JFK’s stance (even as he secretly negotiated a compromise) altered the global balance of power in a fortnight and led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in August 1963.
We may be at another such juncture now. In the past, when North Korea was far less technologically advanced and therefore less dangerous, even some senior Democratic officials advocated preemptive strikes. In 2006, former and future defense secretaries William Perry and Ashton Carter proposed just that in an op-ed for The Washington Post (at a time when President George W. Bush was failing at diplomacy with Pyongyang). “The United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched,” they wrote. “. . . A successful Taepodong launch, unopposed by the United States, its intended victim, would only embolden North Korea even further. The result would be more nuclear warheads atop more and more missiles.” That prediction appears to have been vindicated.
Tweets, of course, are not policy, and Trump’s posture has to appear coherent for this gambit to work. If he is merely making empty threats and actually letting Tillerson (and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who says he, too, supports diplomacy) play good cop to his bad cop — or if he simply expects that his threats will frighten Pyongyang into submission — then he will worsen the danger without achieving his goals. “Make the opponent (or in this case, China the reluctant bystander) fear you might do something that seems irrational,” says Harvard’s Joseph Nye, explaining that a game of chicken only works if your opponent thinks you’re serious. “The inconsistency in the Trump administration’s statements and in Trump’s tweets undercuts his credibility, and China may just think he is bluffing — or in terms of the chicken metaphor, steering with his knees.”
Yet if Trump is embracing such an undeclared strategy and manages to deploy it — recall that he has boasted in the past that he relishes being “unpredictable” and not disclosing his plans — then this new approach could force Beijing’s hand. One way or another, says David Albright, “there is a need to dramatically escalate the pressure on North Korea via China.” Beijing says it wants denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and has proposed “suspension for suspension”: Pyongyang would put its weapons programs on hold while Washington and Seoul paused their joint “massive military exercises,” as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a speech in April. But Beijing must be told clearly (and has been by the Trump administration) that this is not enough to safeguard U.S. and global interests, since it would leave the North’s missile and nuclear capability in place and since Pyongyang, as with past such agreements, would be unlikely to honor it.
And what of North Korea’s current defiance? Despite its belligerence and seeming wackiness, the nearly 70-year-old Pyongyang regime has demonstrated a consistently rational strand in its strategy: preventing its own extinction. If Beijing makes clear to its neighbor — backed by a combined threat from America, South Korea and Japan — that North Korea simply will not be permitted to survive as an intercontinental nuclear threat (even if Pyongyang gets to retain some of its nuclear weapons), it could prove to be a new chapter in the history of successful brinkmanship. All we can say conclusively is that, to date, nothing else has worked.