Drawing the Wrong Lesson about North Korea

Kim Jong Un (KCNA)

by Paul R. Pillar

Believing one’s own puffery and press releases is a hazard for many public figures, but probably especially so for Donald Trump. Although the true beliefs of any demagogue may remain hidden, this hazard can be expected to be all the greater when a leader makes lying an all-consuming way of life, closes himself off from many sources of insight and information, and prefers the company of sycophants.

This hazard may be coming into play regarding the opening with North Korea, centered on the idea that Trump somehow is mainly responsible for the current thaw in relations between the communist hermit kingdom and the rest of the world. Foreign leaders have learned that flattery is the surest way to get Trump’s attention and cooperation, and in this case South Korean president Moon Jae-in has used that tool to suggest that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for the thaw. Trump has soaked up the flattery and the chants of “Nobel” at a campaign-style rally of Trump’s supporters in Michigan.

The specific notion in question is that pressure from Trump’s administration has succeeded in making North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un less belligerent and more accommodating than he was before. But pressure on North Korea is nothing new, as a matter of policy either of previous U.S. administrations or of the international community. There is somewhat more plausibility to the notion if pressure is viewed less in terms of economic sanctions than of the possibility of Trump’s administration launching a military attack on North Korea. The plausibility comes from Trump’s impulsive nature and the presence of a trigger-happy security advisor such as John Bolton. Deconstruct the notion a bit more, however, and one runs into the probability that a U.S. attack would elicit a North Korean response that would, even at the conventional level, involve large-scale casualties in South Korea and might well involve the use of nuclear weapons. Kim has displayed enough shrewdness to be able to reason all of this out and to conclude that even Trump would be unlikely to commit the folly of initiating such a war.

Moreover, although a genuine breakthrough in North Korea’s relationship with the rest of the world is possible, it has not yet occurred. Nothing has yet been achieved that materially advances the significant interests of the United States, world peace, or nuclear nonproliferation. The current thaw is the latest chapter in a history of Kim and his father interspersing threats with detente. The biggest benefit so far in the Kim-Trump relationship has gone to Kim with the promise of a summit meeting, in which the young dictator would meet on an equal footing with the leader of the most powerful country in the world.

Kim’s offerings so far have been tentative, conditional, or insubstantial—a fact that Trump has misrepresented in his tweets on the subject. North Korea has paused its testing of nuclear devices and missiles in the past, and it can end the current pause just as easily as it has ended earlier ones. The closing of a nuclear test site hardly matters when the mountain in question evidently is no longer usable for testing anyway, and North Korea has plenty of other mountains it can use. References to “denuclearization” continue to be clouded by North Korean interpretations of that term to imply much more than just Pyongyang giving up its nukes. Kim’s other promises and offers have been conditioned on the United States or South Korea making major changes, and on North Korean interpretations of what would constitute sufficient change.

North Korean Motivations

Even if Kim’s latest moves represent more than just another tactical turn in years of his regime blowing hot and cold, other influences have been at least as important in bringing events to the current juncture. On why Kim is making such moves now, the most obvious explanation is that the North Korean program of weapons testing has only recently reached a point where the regime can be confident that it has a nuclear deterrent that will actually deter, and especially deter the United States. Kim declared after the latest North Korean missile test, “Now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” This newly achieved posture gives the regime not only more confidence but more bargaining power in any dealings with the United States or anyone else.

The Winter Olympics in South Korea probably were an additional reason for the timing of the current North Korean charm offensive. Pyongyang wanted to participate in the games as a mark of international acceptance, and the associated talks also served as a forum for wider interaction with Seoul.

To the extent economic pressure played into Pyongyang’s thinking, it is such pressure from China, applied for Beijing’s own reasons, that is far more important than pressure from any other direction, given the patterns of North Korean trade. If the initiative of any one government other than North Korea itself has been responsible for the current thaw, that would be the government of President Moon, who has skillfully played his diplomatic hand to further his objective of lowering tension on the peninsula. Moon’s comment about Trump and a Nobel prize came in response to suggestions that Moon himself deserved such a prize. Also worth recalling is that a Kim-Trump summit became a news item when Trump reacted impulsively and on the spot to a report from South Korean officials about the much more careful preparatory work that Moon’s government already had performed.

Gloomy Outlook

The prospects for Kim giving up his nuclear weapons remain dim. If threats from the Trump administration of military attack are an explanation for the current thaw, they also are a reason why Pyongyang will be all the more determined to retain its nuclear deterrent. This is the sort of situation in which a threat of force as a way of trying to get any state to do any kind of disarmament is counterproductive. States maintain deterrent forces precisely to deal with such threats.

A farther-reaching change in U.S. relations with the Koreas that involves genuine denuclearization is conceivable. This would entail, however, a much more sweeping agenda, involving not only issues of U.S. forces in South Korea but also of eventual Korean reunification, that does not appear to underlie the Trump administration’s policy. The administration’s posture, as Bolton has suggested, probably will remain one of demanding North Korean denuclearization before talking seriously about any of those other subjects.

The mistaken causal explanation for apparent North Korean flexibility for which Trump is taking credit is not unique to Trump. Belief in the supposed all-purpose efficacy of threats and pressure, both economic and military, has long been a mainstay of thinking among American hardliners such as Bolton. The belief also fits into an even broader habit of American thought that sees the United States as the global prime mover that can accomplish just about anything if it throws its weight around sufficiently.

The Trump administration probably will find a way to claim that its “maximum pressure” worked even if the results from any Kim-Trump meeting fall far short of current rhetoric about denuclearization. The spin might be that such pressure bought some peace even if other factors, such as insufficient cooperation from China, stood in the way of a more dramatic result. In any event, the erroneous lesson being drawn and publicized will be unhelpful in trying to achieve a genuine resolution of the problem of North Korea and its nuclear weapons. The lesson also will be unhelpful insofar as it is applied to the task of getting Russia, Iran, or some other state to do what the United States would like it to do.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Complete agreement on all points. there are a coupleof other relevant things. First, the Korean and Iranian situations are inextricably intertwined. Kim might for whatever reason, be prepared to give up his nukes under some watertight arrangement of mutual force-reduction. But should Trump decide unilaterlly, and for no reason at all, personal pique (at Obama having negotiated the Iran agreement) apart, to scrap the deal, Kim will pull back instantly. And with a great propaganda coup.

    The other consideration is technical. I think there’s evidence (tho I’m not privy to any classified confirmation of this) that Kim’s H-bomb test ‘got away’ from its minders – was far more violent than predicted. This happened (at least once in the hisory of H-testing) with the soviet Union’s ‘Tsar Bobma’, Oct 30 1961. This may have given Kim reason to hesitate before additional tests. The mountain containing the site shook in a way detectable by satellite. Oops, maybe? so Kim might be wondering if there’s a path, secure for him and his family, to discontinue testing (tho not necessarily manufacture of proven designs).

    If the Iran deal is abrogated, all bets are off. For the foreseeable future, so far as international agreements with the US are concerned. Agreements with anyone. Trust would be shattered.

  2. As Ben Westcott, CNN, wrote on April 20, “Over the past decade, denuclearization in North Korea has only ever meant one thing for the United States and South Korea. “It’s called CVID — complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean program.” All of us experts know that CVID in DPRK = very difficult.
    And, as Westcott also reports, “To Kim, denuclearization applies to the whole peninsula … [He is] expected to push for American military presence [in South Korea] to be part of the discussion.”
    In view of those two incompatible ‘requirements’, doesn’t logic suggest that no significant meeting of the minds between Kim and Trump is possible at the May 22 summit?
    So, what happens in the void created thereafter? The pessimist says Bolton/Pompeo will act to fill the void. Pillar expresses his hopeful views that ‘Trump would be unlikely to commit the folly of initiating such a war [on DPRK],” and ‘The [Kim] regime can be confident that it has a nuclear deterrent that will actually deter … the United States’. How sure should one be of all that?
    The best option to ‘protect the US mainland’ presented to the President may be a large, surprise ‘preventive’ military strike. Possibly, those ‘flexible’ low-yield nukes would be employed to achieve maximum effectiveness in destroying DPRK’s massive artillery aimed at Seoul. If Trump were to order such a military strike, based on assurance by Bolton/Pompeo of winning with minimal US losses (Trump: ‘I like wars. When I win.’), would Sec. Mattis and the US military command agree to carry that out? The boss is the boss.

  3. Trump’s belligerence likely did speedup Kim’s timetable for his nuclear program but after a year he does have a two stage thermonuclear device and if not an ICBM, certainly reliable missiles that can reach Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and S. Korea.

    In short, he is entering negotiations from a position of strength but wisely letting the other side crow. If Trump wants to take credit, fine, but now he has to recognize that the U.S. actually has to give up something in return.

    Why is evacuating S. Korea off the table? Without nuclear weapons, N. Korea doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of conquering S. Korea. This isn’t 1950. S. Korea has an economy about 20 times the size of N. Korea, they have over twice the population and much better weapons. The North has formidable weapons for a limited war and can put up a beastly defense but does not have the resources to sweep into the south like they did before. It is only our ego that would prevent a reasonable deal.

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