Jour­nal­ist Michael Hirsh on how to is­sue a cred­i­ble threat

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @michael­phirsh Michael Hirsh, the for­mer for­eign edi­tor of Newsweek, is the au­thor of “At War With Our­selves: Why Amer­ica Is Squan­der­ing Its Chance to Build a Bet­ter World.”

The pres­i­dent’s North Korea rhetoric casts him in the role of bad cop. It might ac­tu­ally work.

When Pres­i­dent Trump pub­licly slapped down his be­lea­guered sec­re­tary of state, Rex Tiller­son, last week­end, tweet­ing that Amer­ica’s top diplo­mat was “wast­ing his time” try­ing to talk to North Korea about its nu­clear and mis­sile pro­gram, es­tab­lish­ment types greeted the pres­i­dent with the usual yelps of out­rage. “This is life-or-death pres­i­den­tial mal­prac­tice. How could any diplo­mat (or hu­man) tol­er­ate be­ing treated as Tiller­son is?” for­mer United Na­tions am­bas­sador Sa­man­tha Power tweeted. “Can never re­mem­ber a pres­i­dent pub­licly un­der­cut­ting a sec­re­tary of state as Trump just has. Ever,” tweeted Su­san Glasser, Politico’s chief in­ter­na­tional affairs colum­nist. It was the same tone re­served for the time Trump promised in his U.N. speech to “to­tally de­stroy” North Korea if nec­es­sary, and the time he threat­ened to meet Py­ongyang’s threats with “fire and fury.”

Trump, sup­pos­edly, is sow­ing con­fu­sion, ren­der­ing his diplo­mats im­po­tent, rob­bing his ad­min­is­tra­tion of cred­i­bil­ity and, worst of all, bring­ing the world to the brink of war with­out any con­cept of the dan­ger he is cre­at­ing. (At a bizarre news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, Tiller­son re­sponded to a re­port that he had called the pres­i­dent a “mo­ron” and pledged to stay in his job.) And it’s true that there are good rea­sons to won­der whether the pres­i­dent is pur­su­ing any real pol­icy or is im­pul­sively vent­ing his anger over the be­hav­ior of “Lit­tle Rocket Man,” his ep­i­thet for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who hit back by call­ing Trump a “men­tally de­ranged U.S. dotard.”

But there may be a method to the ap­par­ent mad­ness in Trump’s ap­proach, even if he has not done a co­her­ent job of ex­plain­ing it. Nu­clear ex­perts agree that North Korea’s weapons pro­gram, and its threat to U.S. soil, is ad­vanc­ing ev­ery day. “Go back three or four years, and no one thought they would be able to do an ICBM this decade, let alone put a war­head on it,” says David Albright, head of the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity in Wash­ing­ton. Now they have the mis­sile, and “it’ll take maybe within six months, 12 months” to put a nu­clear war­head on it. Trump’s an­swer ap­pears to be the bad-cop rou­tine. It comes with cer­tain risks, but it is one of the only strate­gies for con­tain­ing Py­ongyang that has not yet been tried. And for all we know, it could work.

Trump is right, as he tweeted Oct. 1, that “be­ing nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clin­ton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed.” Nearly a quar­ter-cen­tury of ne­go­ti­a­tions with Kim and his fa­ther, Kim Jong Il, by both Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions have yielded no progress. Since the 1994 Agreed Frame­work, the Clin­ton-era pact un­der which the North was to get fuel oil, food aid and bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of civil­ian nu­clear equip­ment in re­turn for freez­ing and “even­tu­ally” dis­man­tling its plu­to­nium pro­gram, North Korea has used its nu­clear pro­gram as a bar­gain­ing chip to gain West­ern aid. And ev­ery time, it has failed to fol­low through on its pledges to dis­man­tle the pro­gram. The last time there was a real chance to talk Py­ongyang out of nukes and in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles, some diplo­mats be­lieve, was then-Sec­re­tary of State Madeleine Albright’s Oc­to­ber 2000 visit (which I cov­ered as a Newsweek cor­re­spon­dent); in the 17 years since, noth­ing has worked. The North Kore­ans will sim­ply not be ne­go­ti­ated out of their weapons pro­gram.

But per­haps Trump is giv­ing Tiller­son the abil­ity to con­vince North Korea — and just as im­por­tant, China — that if it doesn’t en­gage in earnest diplo­macy at long last, then the man in the White House could go, well, bal­lis­tic. Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon pi­o­neered the “mad­man” ap­proach in for­eign pol­icy by sug­gest­ing that he might use a nu­clear bomb if he couldn’t solve the Viet­nam quag­mire, al­legedly prompt­ing North Viet­namese leader Ho Chi Minh to sue for peace, and by raising Amer­ica’s nu­clear alert sta­tus as a warn­ing to Moscow. The scheme didn’t work very well, though Nixon later ar­gued that the alert has­tened the Sovi­ets’ will­ing­ness to con­duct nu­clear arms talks. But there are a few rea­sons a new strat­egy might be the sen­si­ble move now.

First, North Korea’s threat to the United States is not static; it is ratch­et­ing up dan­ger­ously with new nu­clear, mis­sile and minia­tur­iza­tion tech­nol­ogy that for the first time will al­low Py­ongyang to reach U.S. shores. This alone ar­gues for a new ap­proach. If the pres­i­dent can avoid trig­ger­ing a pre­emp­tive war (a night­mar­ish prospect that should be dealt with care­fully), then his tough rhetoric could force Kim to reckon with an out­come be­yond sanc­tions, which haven’t changed his course and al­most cer­tainly will not in the fu­ture.

Sec­ond, sta­bil­ity-ob­sessed China is primed to hear this mes­sage, and al­ter­ing its be­hav­ior may be the most im­por­tant ob­jec­tive. Bei­jing is Kim’s life­line, ac­count­ing for more than 90 per­cent of North Korea’s trade. Yet China’s lead­ers have done lit­tle more than wrist-slap their neigh­bor to the east for two decades — in­clud­ing, this year, a painful but not fa­tal con­stric­tion of coal and oil trade and the re­moval of North Korean busi­nesses from China. It’s fair to con­clude, af­ter all this time, that Bei­jing is not go­ing to change course un­less it fore­sees a real pos­si­bil­ity of war. The Chi­nese know that this would re­sult in the col­lapse of their only real ally in East Asia, a re­united and vastly more pow­er­ful Korea al­lied with Wash­ing­ton, and a for­mi­da­ble refugee and hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis on their bor­der.

No one, per­haps not even Trump, wants a war on the Korean Penin­sula, one that could cost hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives, in­clud­ing those of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel and tens of thou­sands of U.S. cit­i­zens liv­ing in South Korea. But dur­ing the Cold War, with far more lives at stake, the United States en­gaged in oc­ca­sional tense brinkman­ship with the Soviet Union as a mat­ter of pol­icy when it per­ceived its vi­tal in­ter­ests to be threat­ened, most no­tably dur­ing the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis. A fi­nal round of hastily im­pro­vised diplo­macy re­solved that ter­ri­fy­ing stand­off (with a quiet deal to trade the with­drawal of U.S. mis­siles from Turkey for the re­moval of Soviet mis­siles from Cuba). But diplo­macy ar­guably worked only be­cause Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy was will­ing to go to the brink of war — in other words, be­cause Wash­ing­ton was pre­pared to de­clare that a mis­sile threat from Cuba was so in­tol­er­a­ble that it was ready to pre­emp­tively open hos­til­i­ties. JFK’s stance (even as he se­cretly ne­go­ti­ated a com­pro­mise) al­tered the global bal­ance of power in a fort­night and led to the Nu­clear Test Ban Treaty signed in Au­gust 1963.

We may be at an­other such junc­ture now. In the past, when North Korea was far less tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced and there­fore less dan­ger­ous, even some se­nior Demo­cratic of­fi­cials ad­vo­cated pre­emp­tive strikes. In 2006, for­mer and fu­ture de­fense sec­re­taries Wil­liam Perry and Ash­ton Carter pro­posed just that in an op-ed for The Wash­ing­ton Post (at a time when Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush was fail­ing at diplo­macy with Py­ongyang). “The United States should im­me­di­ately make clear its in­ten­tion to strike and de­stroy the North Korean Tae­podong mis­sile be­fore it can be launched,” they wrote. “A suc­cess­ful Tae­podong launch, un­op­posed by the United States, its in­tended vic­tim, would only em­bolden North Korea even fur­ther. The re­sult would be more nu­clear war­heads atop more and more mis­siles.” That pre­dic­tion seems pre­scient.

Tweets, of course, are not pol­icy, and Trump’s pos­ture has to ap­pear co­her­ent for this gam­bit to work. If he is merely mak­ing empty threats and ac­tu­ally let­ting Tiller­son (and De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, who says he, too, sup­ports diplo­macy) play good cop to his bad cop — or if he sim­ply ex­pects that his threats will frighten Py­ongyang into sub­mis­sion — then he will worsen the dan­ger with­out achiev­ing his goals. “Make the op­po­nent (or in this case, China the re­luc­tant by­stander) fear you might do some­thing that seems ir­ra­tional,” says Har­vard’s Joseph Nye, ex­plain­ing that a game of chicken only works if your op­po­nent thinks you’re se­ri­ous. “The in­con­sis­tency in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s state­ments and in Trump’s tweets un­der­cuts his cred­i­bil­ity, and China may just think he is bluff­ing — or in terms of the chicken metaphor, steer­ing with his knees.”

Yet if Trump is em­brac­ing such an un­de­clared strat­egy and man­ages to de­ploy it — re­call that he has boasted in the past that he rel­ishes be­ing “un­pre­dictable” and not dis­clos­ing his plans — then this new ap­proach could force Bei­jing’s hand. One way or an­other, says David Albright, “there is a need to dra­mat­i­cally es­ca­late the pres­sure on North Korea via China.” Bei­jing says it wants de­nu­cle­ariza­tion on the Korean Penin­sula and has pro­posed “sus­pen­sion for sus­pen­sion”: Py­ongyang would put its weapons pro­grams on hold while Wash­ing­ton and Seoul paused their joint “mas­sive mil­i­tary ex­er­cises,” as Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi said in a speech in April. But Bei­jing must be told clearly (and has been by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion) that this is not enough to safe­guard U.S. and global in­ter­ests, since it would leave the North’s mis­sile and nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity in place and since Py­ongyang, as with past such agree­ments, would be un­likely to honor it.

And what of North Korea’s cur­rent de­fi­ance? De­spite its bel­liger­ence and seem­ing wack­i­ness, its nearly 70-year-old regime has demon­strated a con­sis­tently ra­tio­nal strand in its strat­egy: pre­vent­ing its own ex­tinc­tion. If Bei­jing makes clear to its neigh­bor — backed by a com­bined threat from Amer­ica, South Korea and Ja­pan — that North Korea sim­ply will not be per­mit­ted to sur­vive as an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal nu­clear threat (even if Py­ongyang gets to re­tain some of its nu­clear weapons), it could prove to be a new chap­ter in the his­tory of suc­cess­ful brinkman­ship. All we can say con­clu­sively is that, to date, noth­ing else has worked.


A South Korean pre­pares to per­form a cer­e­mo­nial of­fer­ing to rel­a­tives in North Korea this month near the Demil­i­ta­rized Zone. Ten­sions are run­ning high on the Korean Penin­sula as Pres­i­dent Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trade in­sults and...

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