Donald Trump once called Kim Jong-Un a “smart cookie.” I’m not sure how smart he is (he kills his own people), but he’s a whole lot smarter than Donald Trump.
Trump, well before he took office, has been fixated like a 10-year-old on nukes going boom. But intercontinental nuclear capability, as any North Korea watcher knows, is only part of Kim Jong-Un’s stated ambitions for North Korea. Surprise: KJU doesn’t want a war. He wants peace and a thriving economy for North Korea, and said so in his first public speech as the country’s leader.
And this week he made this clear yet again in his New Year’s speech, which we, and Trump, noted mostly for the warning he gave the U.S. that he now had a “nuclear button on his desk.” But this warning was directed only at the United States, not at his longstanding and supposedly primary enemy, South Korea. After making clear he still sees the U.S. as a military threat, he offered, seemingly out of nowhere (though as I’ll point out this shouldn’t have been a surprise), an olive branch to South Korea. He proposed not only to send a North Korean delegation to the Olympic games there this year, but pitched the idea that it could be cause for thawing diplomatic relations with his arch-rival.
In other words, KJU just made it clear his policy and military priorities are not what we assume they are: He wants to deal with South Korea diplomatically and economically; the United States, and importantly ONLY the United States, is still considered a military rival.
In still other words, he’s freezing the U.S. out of peace negotiations, and, he hopes, out of the region entirely. North Korea’s most powerful weapon is the one Mr. Trump is blind to: Peace. They have complete control over whether there will be peace in the region, and when. And for all our military strength, we’re impotent.
Of course, this is partly because KJU knows if things keep getting worse on his watch he’ll be killed in a coup, but his solution has been a long time in the making: If he can get talks with South Korea to go well (and they’ve already begun talking), no countries in the region would have much reason to partner with the United States. We justify our presence in the region with providing military protection for South Korea and Japan, but if that protection is no longer needed, those countries have no incentive to let us stick around if they don’t want to. And they don’t want to, given Trump’s dismissal and ignorance of East Asia (not appointing ambassadors; pulling out of TPP; not standing up to China; etc).
This means that Kim Jong-Un, acting from a position of weakness, can singlehandedly punt the United States out of the region. If he does, he tips the balance of power to China, which is, of course, North Korea’s ally. The ideal move would bring South Korea, Japan, and China together and exclude the United States, and this is exactly what he’s just done.
Keep in mind, too, that China hasn’t been able to do anything about North Korea, either. China doesn’t want what the U.S. wants in the region (beyond peace), but until recently it couldn’t afford to challenge the United States on this issue. In reality, China has always wanted the same thing North Korea wants: A stronger North Korea and a weaker United States. And now both countries might get their wish.
All without firing a bullet.
It looks like someone finally pointed this out to Trump, who tweeted yesterday morning:
You f*cking idiot.
Without further ado, then, here's how the Korean War might have just been lost on Trump's broken watch.
What North Korea Wants
First of all, we're almost certainly not going to war with North Korea. It would be impossible to describe how bad that would be for everyone in the world. So if they strike a peaceful resolution with South Korea, Japan, China, and others that also excludes the United States, there's little that Trump's “much bigger and more powerful nuclear button” can do about it.
But North Korea is kicking our ass in the Korean War, and they're doing it because the Trump administration doesn't understand what North Korea wants and how it plans to get it.
We all know North Korea wants nuclear weapons, and that they want nukes that can hit the United States. Many of us don't understand why, though. But I can't stress this enough: North Korea doesn't want a war. That would be the end for North Korea, and their end goal isn't national suicide. Their end goal is, like everyone else on the planet, survival, and they see acquiring intercontinental nukes as a guarantor of peace, not war.
This isn't a weird or uniquely dangerous mentality. We coincidentally view our nukes the same way. That's why we have so many. So, just like us, KJU doesn't want to use his nukes; he just wants to have them. What he really wants is a little elbow room to begin turning his economy around, and to do that he's gotta get the U.S. out of his weird haircut. If North Korea can nuke the U.S., then, it's much less likely, if not impossible, that the U.S. will use military force against them. So, should Kim Jong-Un be able to make our military presence irrelevant, he could single-handedly change the balance of power in the East Pacific. Given his unexpected New Year's olive-branch overture to South Korea, it seems he believes he's already succeeded. I'd say he's likely right.
Of course, North Korea has always obviously seemed to have the weak hand in its negotiations, save for minimal but sustained support from China and Russia. They're really poor, isolated, and militarily outmatched. For decades the United States has ensured North Korea remains weak and not a regional threat, and we've done this by leveraging our economic, military, and most importantly our diplomatic strength to pressure the regime. We've been successful to the degree that we've gotten the world to endorse some of the most severe sanctions ever leveraged on a country.
Our bet, though, has always been that the North Korean regime would succumb to the pressures of sanctions or to internal threats from their own angry, starved populace before they could develop an intercontinental nuclear capability. But what we haven't come to grips with is that we've had everything riding on this one bet. Over this last year, it seems to have become clear that the North Koreans managed to endure those sanctions (by starving millions of their own people) long enough to secure a nuclear deterrent capable of holding U.S. cities hostage.
So yes, this is a game-changer.
Is this Obama's fault? Of course. Is it also Bush's fault? Of course. But their failures are also in a weird way successes, because they also managed to avoid what would be the most catastrophic military conflict since World War II. The North Koreans have guaranteed a catastrophe with an arsenal of conventional artillery that could set fire to Seoul and kill perhaps hundreds of thousands of civilians, including thousands of Americans, in three or four hours. The military option, though technically “on the table,” has never been a good one. That's why we've never exercised it, and it's why Trump won't do it, either.
But Trump had no idea about the history of any of this, so he just got the shit kicked out of him on the international stage. The obvious question the Trump administration should have pursued from day one is, given Pyongyang's nuclear advancement, what it would actually do once it could successfully deter the U.S. military threat. The answer is obvious: renegotiate economic sanctions, favorable trade conditions, etc.
But what incentive does North Korea have to include the United States in economic negotiations? Wouldn't they want the opposite? After all, North Korea would only need cooperation from regional powers to negotiate a peaceful regional detente. And if they're moving towards peace, no other country would want to oppose those negotiations or discourage the process with more sanctions. This, and not nuclear war, is how North Korea can get rid of the United States.
Trump Really Is an Absolute Moron
Rex Tillerson, and 65% of America, was absolutely right about this: Donald Trump is a megaton idiot. But a lot of us were idiots about why Trump's idiocy was dangerous. This includes all the sensationalism you've seen in the press and from high-profile pundits and know-nothing celebrities about the threat of a madman launching nukes on a whim, or as a “distraction” from Mueller, etc etc. The threat Trump poses to our national security has never been about his control of the nuclear arsenal, because he's not in control of it and we've never been in danger of him launching a nuclear war. Secretary of Defense James Mattis made this quite clear when he bucked the chain of command at the first available opportunity: Immediately and publicly refusing to instate Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the military. The system will stop Trump, who everyone knows is a complete maniac, from starting a war on a whim.
The real danger of Trump's idiocy just made itself apparent: He's ignorant and dismissive of diplomacy, because to his juvenile mind, and the collective puerility of his stupid supporters, diplomacy equals weakness and military equals strength. It's the other way around: War is a last resort, the recourse of the weak, the desperate, and the failed. No? Well, North Korea has probably just beaten us with peace, and it will deliver the final blow with diplomacy.
The Trump administration has been either blind or dismissive, and likely both, to North Korea's publicly stated and re-stated economic ambitions. Here's a rare video of what Pyongyang actually looks like, recently taken by a tourist through a bus window on his way to the airport. It's common sense that North Korea would want peace and prosperity, and it's ridiculous we would think it favorable to the United States if we made that opportunity impossible for them.
But Trump is a child who sees the world in terms of playground politics: Obama's strategic patience was weak; people only understand “strength,” and real strength can only be physical power. So he immediately parted ways with Obama and made it clear to the world we would now rely on our overwhelming military threat to keep North Korea in check. Trumpers thought this was strong leadership, but continual threats of nuclear annihilation and a stream of childish insults on social media give the North Koreans zero incentive to work with the United States towards a favorable resolution. Now, though, it should be quite clear that Trump's “strategy” was shortsighted and stupid: North Korea got the bomb, so our military threat is effectively off the table. We have to talk, but what leverage do we have?
None, that's what.
What leverage does Kim Jong-Un have? All of it.
Because let's take another look at who really wields power in the region. Which government is more capable of bringing this standoff to a peaceful resolution, the United States or North Korea? Of course it's North Korea. All they have to do is say, “Okay, we're done.” The United States has had no long-term power to secure peace on the peninsula. After all, even the insuperable military power of the United States is useless if, well, you can't use it. Therefore if North Korea can make it impossible for us to launch a pre-emptive attack, it cuts the United States out of it entirely.
That's really, really, really bad. Here's why.
If Trump Weren't an Absolute Moron
What Trump should have asked: If North Korea eliminates the U.S. military threat, how does that change the balance of power in the region?
The answer isn't too favorable for us. The United States has guaranteed South Korea and Japan that we would defend them against any threat in the region. In return, those countries give us their permission us to project our military power in the Pacific. We like this because under the auspices of protecting North Korea we can also position fleets and nuclear weapons that keep China in check. (Japan and South Korea are also nervous about China, but more on that in a sec.)
But if North Korea no longer threatens the region militarily, there's no reason for the U.S. military to have such a large presence on the Korean peninsula, or in the East Pacific generally. And, thanks again to the Trump administration, South Korea and Japan don't like us all that much anymore. This is because Trump's made it clear he doesn't care about them: He didn't name an ambassador to South Korea for eleven months, and hadn't sent ambassadors to Japan or China until this July.
That's f*cking insane. Trump has cost us valuable regional partnerships, and in the process he's turned Japan and South Korea against us and brought them closer to China. This is a golden incentive for the Chinese to improve their relationships with Japan and South Korea, who have the third- and eleventh-largest economies in the world and are the fourth- and sixth-largest trading partners with the United States. Now China has an opportunity to exploit Trump's self-inflicted diplomatic damage and expand their influence the region.
Kim Jong-Un likely saw this coming a mile away: If North Korea can make the U.S. military irrelevant in the region, they can wage peace to negotiate favorable economic conditions with Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia. Those countries would no longer need us around. We'd be cut out of that massive economic bloc, to the advantage of North Korea and its ally: China.
This Is Already Happening
In Kim Jong-Un's traditional New Year's speech, he referenced having a “nuclear button” on his desk. Mr. Trump responded on Twitter by pretending to have a large penis that works.
First, as I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t work. Second, it took Trump two days to issue that response. Two days of what one would assume would be thought and consultation with advisers, and all the President of the United States, a self-declared “genius,” could come up with was a dick joke.
He’s even a failure at playground politics.
But that’s not important. What’s more important, Mr. Trump unsurprisingly misunderstood KJU. Again.
KJU made it quite clear in the speech that his nukes were “a reality” and not “a threat” to the United States. Also, he made it clear that the nukes were meant specifically to deter the United States. The North Korean dictator then pivoted, in a move that surprised many people, to offering to send a North Korean delegation to the Olympics in South Korea, and suggested that the event might be occasion to discuss negotiations directly with the South Korean government “for peaceful resolution with our southern border.” The South Korean government accepted the offer and encouraged its neighbor to strike a peaceful resolution.
I’d like to point out that KJU’s offer was also a subtle dig at Trump, who still hasn’t said whether he would continue the presidential tradition and attend the Olympic games, despite being personally invited by the South Korean president back in October.
And lo and behold, yesterday it was reported that North Korea just called South Korea directly through its diplomatic hotline. If these talks actually look like they’re going to go somewhere (and again, North Korea holds the cards), no other country in the region would see much of a reason to be partnered with a United States whose military protection is no longer needed and whose diplomacy failed them. This effectively hands regional supremacy to China.
On top of this, Trump already pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the world’s largest trade agreement. He also pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord. So guess who’s filling our shoes? China. China. China.
And has Trump flexed any muscles at China? No. Did he declare them a currency manipulator? No. Is pulling out of the TPP going to weaken that trading bloc? No. In fact, it gives China an opportunity to grow into global leadership role, and perhaps to supplant America at the top without firing a single bullet.
Government is a long game, and the world is irreversibly interconnected. Childish insults, empty threats, dick jokes, and playground tactics like “I’m taking my ball and going home” don’t work. The United States is not stronger under Donald Trump. It’s getting weaker by the week. We can’t go it alone because the United States isn’t stronger or more important than the rest of the world. That’s why we helped create the interconnected world in the first place.
We might have lost the Korean War in our sleep.