Is Trump’s North Korean strategy a gamble that will pay off?

Published 8:47 am Thursday, December 14, 2017


Contributing columnist

Donald Trump’s Korea policy may be disastrously flawed or ingeniously inspired. Being unpredictable has an initial advantage in some negotiations. If you doubt this proposition, consider how well it worked for North Korea. However, at some point, you must come to the table to achieve your objectives. You can’t play the crazy card forever. Hence, there must be a plan behind the routine.

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The North Korean regime is pure evil and is abusing its own people in a most hideous manner. Beyond that, it is a consequential threat to the rest of the world and a focused threat to the U.S. Decades of appeasement served only to feed the beast; hence, strategic patience has failed.   

Trump’s foreign policy makes the regime more unstable each day, which is a source of considerable anxiety for me, not because I feel threatened here in Kentucky; but, because if things go off the rails, millions of people in the Koreas will suffer and Japan, Hawaii, and the west coast will be in harm’s way. On the other hand, the world has had to put up with these people for far too long and if they succeed in marrying missiles with warheads, they will most assuredly proliferate those weapons to others — something the rest of the world cannot abide.

The deployment of the U.S. Navy puts events on a hair trigger, which is necessary — should war break out, we must stop the destruction in South Korea as quickly as possible. In addition, the fleet can remain deployed for only so long before their efficiency begins to decline, or before someone makes a mistake.

The Trump Administration assumes North Korea really does not want war with the US, despite its rhetoric. This is a good bet based on past behavior. However, a deranged North Korean colonel is the joker in the deck.  

Trump’s unpredictability is an asset in this scenario, since the success of the strategy depends on the North Koreans believing he will go to war. Strangely, Trump is the only president in the last 50 years who might go to war: the man and the moment meet.

What I suspect is the administration is quietly talking to North Korea. I hope they are also quietly talking to our allies, including China and Russia. The secret talks with China and Russia should be about a grand bargain for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, the removal of U.S. troops, and a plan to support any peaceful new government that emerges in North Korea. This would be the optimal outcome.

Donald Trump is clearly a gambler — he gambles with other peoples’ lives and his own future. If serious fighting breaks out, he loses. If it is resolved quickly and the regime disappears, he could remove U.S. troops from the peninsula, negotiate a pledge from China and Russia to allow the Koreas to pursue their own reunification, offer economic aid to the new North Korean government, and ask Japan to pledge not to go nuclear. There is a lot that could be accomplished here.

Bob Martin is Emeritus Economics Professor at Centre College.