Op-Ed

Why a petulant, erratic Trump may succeed with North Korea

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, brass-knuckles bargaining, the crazy person wins because he can force 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 United States can do to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles to carry them 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, make agreements only to break them, 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, even if they are enforced, still permit North Korea to earn plenty of hard currency trading in what isn’t forbidden by the U.N. and 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 all 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 always 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 was 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 long-standing 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.

Russell Korobkin, a professor of law at UCLA, is writing “The Ultimatum Game: The Science and Strategy of Negotiation.”

Russell Korobkin, a professor of law at UCLA, is writing “The Ultimatum Game: The Science and Strategy of Negotiation.”

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