This article is part of a weeklong series looking back at the first year of Donald Trump's presidency.
During Donald Trump's presidential campaign, North Korea barely came up. The reality TV star didn't spend too much time on foreign policy—or any policy, really—and in his big "America First" campaign speech in April 2016 that covered global politics he mentioned North Korea only as a problem the US needed to pressure China into solving. Back then, "America First" sounded like old-fashioned isolationism, or maybe even some sort of mercantilism. In any case, it didn't seem like a President Trump would get the US into new wars.
The idea that Trump would forgo international adventures and focus on a domestic agenda has long since gone up in smoke. Hawks in the White House seem to be itching for direct conflict with Iran. Trump has expanded the US military presence in Afghanistan. The use of Special Operations Forces remains on the rise. Most terrifying of all, it seems like every day there's a new sign that an all-out return to war with North Korea is on its way.
North Korea was always going to be a major problem for Trump—Barack Obama explicitly warned his successor about the danger the nuclear-armed nation poised. Throughout the first year of Trump's presidency, North Korea continued to develop an arsenal that could wipe out US cities at the push of a button. Of particular interest were the detonation in September of a possible H-bomb—a huge leap in terms of sheer nuclear kilotonnage—as well as November's maiden voyage of the impressive Hwasong-15 missile, which looks like it could place a warhead anywhere in the US.
Every step North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has taken into the nuclear big leagues has been met by a provocation from Trump. In August he did some off-the-cuff saber-rattling—the famous "fire and fury" line—that scared seemingly everyone except Kim Jong-un, and in September, he gave Kim a cute nickname that he got either from an Elton John song or from a line Nicolas Cage said in The Rock.
In this atmosphere, war with North Korea—once unthinkable because of the massive civilian casualties in Korea and Japan that would result—has become a topic of open conversation. "It's Time to Bomb North Korea," read one provocative headline in Foreign Policy this month. (The article below it, a sadistic op-ed by Edward Luttwak, argued that if the Seoul area sustained heavy civilian casualties during a US-led war, that would simply be their nation's comeuppance years of poor planning.)
Rodger Baker, who analyzes the Korean Peninsula for the military intelligence firm Statfor, thinks war is still not imminent. For the US, "it still seems like overall, the cost of military action continues to outweigh the benefit," he told me in a phone interview, adding that "the North Koreans don’t want war." Last month's bilateral talks between North and South Korea have been a tangible sign that movement in the direction of something other than war is not inconceivable. The takeaways from those talks have, so far, centered on the decision by the two nations to march together in the Winter Olympics, but that's more than nothing.
According to Baker, Trump could have been a factor in the two countries' decision to chat. "He certainly contributed to the factors that led the North Koreans to have this dialogue with the South at this time," Baker told me, though he hastened to add that the timing also "matches where the North Koreans are in their program"—so it's entirely possible that we'd be seeing talks like these no matter who was sitting in the White House.
The latter view is the perspective of Karl Friedhoff, a foreign policy fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who formerly worked as a public opinion pollster in South Korea. "It was essentially preordained that North Korea was going to being to play nice right before the Olympics," Friedhoff told me, adding, "I don’t think [Trump] was responsible in any way shape or form for this coming together."
Friedhoff perceives the broad strokes of Trump's North Korea plan as nothing new. What Trump is doing is presenting a credible military threat, just as past presidents have done, hoping sanctions actually hurt the regime, and then, once the medicine has done its work, eventually "bringing North Korea back to the table." The difference this time, according to Friedhoff: "Now we have a president who is relatively erratic in his behavior. One day he’ll make fire and fury comments, and the next he’ll come out and say, We need to have negotiations and talks! We can talk anywhere and anytime!”
On many foreign policy issues, Trump's ideological compass seems to spin around like a propeller. His own most ardent fans, many of whom believed he would be a less interventionist president than Obama, watched in horror as he lobbed missiles at Syria last April and cozied up to Saudi Arabia in May. He hasn't been as soft on Russia as many of his opponents feared, but he's spent his first year alarming traditional American allies with his rhetoric, threatening to leave NAFTA, gutting the State Department, and causing international incidents for no reason—most recently when he reportedly called all of Africa a "shithole."
Through it all, however, Trump's perspective on the two regimes that have been America's most persistent antagonists—North Korea and Iran—has never really changed. Trump’s clearest foreign policy program has been a bifurcated effort aimed, apparently, at deepening tensions with the two countries. But while Trump appears poised to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran and could ratchet up hostilities against it, the prospect of war with North Korea is the thing really keeping Americans scared of their own shadows. Unlike Iran, North Korea has nuclear weapons and potentially the capability to use them against the US, creating one of the most delicate, high-stakes geopolitical situations in the world.
A report in the New York Times on Sunday painted a bleak picture of an unenthused US military glumly proceeding with the march toward war with North Korea, conducting exercises that simulate combat conditions. But Baker says we might not want to read too much into that. "We’ve known about these trainings for months and months," he explained. He told me their emergence in the news cycle right now makes sense. "My guess is that the [US] government is sort of intentionally letting these stories come out now, just as a reminder that the inter-Korean talks don’t mean the US is stopping its [war] preparation."
Some analysts have speculated that with Trump watching from the sidelines, those aforementioned inter-Korean talks could exacerbate squabbles between South Korea and the US. Baker didn't seem too worried about that either. Yes, North Korea could certainly try to whisper dreams about a wonderful America-free future into South Korean President Moon Jae-In's ear, but that's not likely to get them very far. "At this phase, it’s hard to see what would potentially undermine US strength that wouldn’t, in the immediate [term], also undermine South Korea’s own national security," Baker said.
So the question remains: Is there some uniquely Trumpian flourish to the North Korean deal-making process? Something no other president would have the gold-plated cojones to try? "The rumor is that there’s there’s a trade war looming with China, which, if it’s carried out, will have an impact on what China is willing to do with North Korea as well," Friedhoff told me.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Vancouver to talk to a crew of representatives from all the nations that were allied with the US during the Korean War. The move, Baker told me, was designed to create, "a pseudo legitimate entity." But the summit pissed off China, which was excluded from the talks, and Russia, another excluded party, which condemned the talks as harkening back to an "inappropriate Cold War mindset."
According to Baker, here's how this new source of pressure is meant to work: These talks are designed "to let the Chinese know that the US has alternatives to the United Nations Security Council." While this may not be a formal meeting of the UN, it is, "a United Nations thing," and while the UN Security Council can't seem to agree that North Korea is a "belligerent" (perhaps because that council includes Russia and China), this group definitely does. "Obviously these days China and Russia are not acting as if North Korea is a belligerent," and this meeting is a way of saying that needs to change, Baker said.
In the longer term, the big question is whether the US will decide that coexisting with a nuclear North Korea is anything other than a total nonstarter. If the US can eventually shift from the position absolutely no nukes ever or we'll never talk to you, and into what Baker calls "a long-term containment strategy," then, he said, "there is a lot of room for dialogue."
Will Trump decide to make that shift, backing away from his months of angry tweets? I don't think anyone in the world—maybe not even Trump himself—has any idea.
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