Mad­ness could fi­nally end this cri­sis

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Rus­sell Korobkin Rus­sell Korobkin, a pro­fes­sor of law at UCLA, is writ­ing “The Ul­ti­ma­tum Game: The Sci­ence and Strat­egy of Ne­go­ti­a­tion.”

Don­ald Trump is a nar­cis­sis­tic, short-tem­pered, un­in­formed, un­pre­dictable bully. In al­most ev­ery con­text, this com­bi­na­tion of traits is ex­actly what you would not want in a pres­i­dent of the United States. But one ex­cep­tion might be in deal­ing with Kim Jong Un and North Korea.

As I tell stu­dents in my ne­go­ti­a­tion class, in hard-nosed, brassknuck­les bar­gain­ing, the crazy per­son wins be­cause he forces a ra­tio­nal coun­ter­part to make con­ces­sions in or­der to avoid mu­tual dis­as­ter. And no one does crazy like Trump.

So-called nor­mal Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tions have been out­foxed by the Kim fam­ily for decades. The reclu­sive lead­ers of the Her­mit Kingdom have known that the only thing the U.S. can do to pre­vent them from de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons and long-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles is to start a war that would dev­as­tate the Korean penin­sula. That op­tion was, and is, so bad that the Kims have cal­cu­lated that they could blus­ter, stall, break agree­ments and gen­er­ally thumb their noses at the West with no risk of se­ri­ous con­se­quences.

Sure, the United States can or­ga­nize eco­nomic sanc­tions, but the Kims have never cared if their peo­ple starved by the mil­lions, just as long as there was enough money to feed the mil­i­tary and fi­nance weapons pro­grams. North Korea is cer­tainly dis­pleased with the lat­est United Na­tions sanc­tions regime, which is ex­pected to re­duce its ex­ports by a third, but there is al­most no chance this will be painful enough to con­vince Kim to give up his war­heads. The sanc­tions will still permit North Korea to earn plenty of hard cur­rency trad­ing in what isn’t for­bid­den by the U.N. and by send­ing guest work­ers to la­bor abroad.

The only way to stop North Korea’s march to­ward de­liv­er­able nu­clear weapons, short of a blood­bath, would be for China to em­bargo trade with and eco­nomic sup­port of Py­ongyang, ef­fec­tively starv­ing Kim’s mil­i­tary. But while China doesn’t love the idea of a nu­clear North Korea, it has pre­ferred that to the risk of a desta­bi­lized regime perched on its bor­der.

North Korea’s threat to take “phys­i­cal ac­tion” and re­tal­i­ate “thousands of times over” for the lat­est sanc­tions is blus­ter typ­i­cal for that coun­try’s pro­pa­ganda min­istry. But Trump’s “fire and fury” re­join­der is in sharp con­trast to Amer­ica’s usual care­ful diplo­matic lan­guage. Mil­i­tary and for­eign af­fairs ex­perts in the West have uni­formly crit­i­cized Trump. When crazy goes toe to toe with crazy, es­ca­la­tion can po­ten­tially get out of hand and lead to war. North Korea has al­ready raised the ante by specif­i­cally threat­en­ing to shoot mis­siles near Guam, which could trig­ger an Amer­i­can re­sponse.

But the ob­vi­ous dan­ger of Trump fac­ing off with Kim is pre­cisely why ra­tio­nal Chi­nese lead­ers might re­assess their na­tion’s long­stand­ing ap­proach and in­ter­vene more de­ci­sively. If Bei­jing con­tin­ues to al­low Kim’s pariah state to de­velop its nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties, two events might oc­cur that never be­fore seemed likely. First, the United States might pre­emp­tively at­tack North Korea’s nu­clear weapons fa­cil­i­ties, start­ing a con­ven­tional or even nu­clear war along the 38th par­al­lel. Trump’s gen­er­als will prob­a­bly pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing, but given the pres­i­dent’s daily an­tics, who could pos­si­bly be­lieve an at­tack is im­pos­si­ble? Sec­ond, fear­ing in­creas­ing un­pre­dictabil­ity in Wash­ing­ton, Ja­pan or South Korea could de­cide to de­velop its own nu­clear de­ter­rent rather than con­tin­u­ing to rely solely on Amer­i­can pro­tec­tion.

Ei­ther a hot war or nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion in its back­yard would be much worse for China than any risks it might run by putting an end to Kim’s nu­clear am­bi­tions. Its best strat­egy now is to fi­nally take se­ri­ous ac­tion against Py­ongyang, com­pletely shut­ting off of all com­merce, in­clud­ing oil ship­ments, un­til North Korea gives up its nu­clear pro­gram. In re­turn, China can de­mand that the United States, along with South Korea and Ja­pan, en­ter a treaty promis­ing not to seek regime change that could threaten the ex­is­tence of the Kim dynasty.

A petu­lant, er­ratic North Korea has suc­cess­fully de­fied the West for decades. A bom­bas­tic re­sponse from an equally petu­lant and er­ratic Pres­i­dent Trump is both scary and dan­ger­ous, but it might just suc­ceed where prior, ra­tio­nal Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tions have failed.

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