Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Photo by S. Herman, courtesy Voice of America.
For all the hand-wringing by the president’s critics about his bellicose tweets and supposed instability (and inability) in dealing with North Korea, Trump’s policy of matching harsh words with tough action shows at least some promise.
Not that he’ll get credit from outlets like The Atlantic, which are often wrong but never in doubt. Last summer, the outlet ran a story with the headline “Why Trump Is Wholly Unsuited to the North Korea Crisis,” largely keyed off his widely dissected “fire and fury” remarks.
Yet about six months after those remarks, and a little more than a year into his presidency, Trump’s actions have not led to disaster. If anything, they may be doing some good.
Take last week’s round of unilateral sanctions. The White House announced the new sanctions would target more than 50 shipping and maritime transport enterprises, with an eye toward cutting off fuel and revenue supporting North Korea’s nuclear program. China loudly squawked at this announcement because the targeted list includes Chinese-owned ships; Beijing successfully kept most of the country’s maritime trade out of the last round of sanctions, which went through the U.N. Security Council. China’s Foreign Ministry released a statement in which it said the country “resolutely opposes the U.S. side enacting unilateral sanctions and ‘long-armed jurisdiction’ in accordance with its domestic law against Chinese entities or individuals.”
North Korea, meanwhile, said it wants to talk to the United States. Trump’s emissaries to the Winter Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s daughter Ivanka, did not take the bait, although there were reports that Pence agreed to meet secretly before the North Koreans pulled out in protest of tough American positions. We can assume, however, that the presidential daughter and vice president privately tried to buck up the noodle-like posture of South Korea’s pacifist-leaning president, Moon Jae-in.
Many South Koreans were outraged when Moon waived sanctions to allow a North Korean official linked to the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel to attend the Olympic closing ceremony. This action, though, along with the negotiations that led to the North’s participation in the Olympic Games in the first place, demonstrate a consistent if arguably misguided approach from Moon. He announced a softer line toward North Korea soon after taking office, and continues to urge the United States to engage with the North even if it does not offer denuclearization.
The earlier round of sanctions, meanwhile, may be having some effect. North Korean winter military exercises were curtailed this year, which might be due to fuel and other shortages, as some U.S. officials have suggested. Or it might just have been a way to downplay the regime’s aggression ahead of the Olympics. But recent defections, and the pitiful condition of the soldiers who have defected, show that even the North’s front-line soldiers are not getting decent food and medical care. Japan, like the U.S., has augmented international sanctions with unilateral action of its own.
Sanctions alone are unlikely to either bring down Kim Jong Un’s regime entirely or get it to abandon its nuclear and missile programs. That outcome remains a hope, but not an expectation. In a New Year’s address, Kim called for his country’s military to continue producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles on a large scale. Previous rounds of sanctions have done little or nothing to blunt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, regardless of their other effects.
If Trump is true to his word – not a defining characteristic of his predecessors’ approach to North Korea – the “very rough” steps that may follow if North Korea continues to build its nuclear capabilities despite the new round of sanctions will probably include at least some military component. This is naturally alarming both to the South Koreans, on whose territory most of the consequences are likely to fall, and to China, which has a brittle and unstable “ally” on its doorstep, though right now Kim is much more of a problem than an ally even in name.
The endgame is far from clear, and Trump certainly could still blunder into a major mistake. That would just make him the latest in a long line of U.S. presidents to do so; the office necessarily entails a lot of on-the-job training. But in sizing up the first year of Trump’s behavior regarding North Korea, he doesn’t seem to be doing any worse than his predecessors. He might be doing better. Just don’t expect to read that assessment in the Atlantic any time soon.