Kim is winning because Trump

Permanent Representative Haley is pushing hard this week for a new UN Security Council resolution on North Korea, one that brings maximum economic pressure to bear, even as President Trump continues to mumble about military options rather than negotiations. Kim Jong-un appears to be paying neither any mind. Why not?

The short answer is BATNA: best alternative to a negotiated agreement. His is better than ours:

  • He can ignore our military bluster because he now has both a conventional deterrent–a massive artillery attack on Seoul–and a nuclear one. There can be no more doubting Pyongyang’s capability of hitting at least US allies (and the US forces stationed in them) with a nuclear weapon.
  • He can ignore the sanctions threat at least until he sees what emerges from the UNSC and whether China is inclined to comply with it fully. Barring North Korea’s trade without China is meaningless.

Our options are limited: we can threaten military action and tightened sanctions, but we can’t really do either unilaterally. Military action should at least require concurrence from South Korea, which is most exposed to the North’s artillery and understandably loathe to go in the military direction. Trade and financial sanctions require China’s cooperation. Threatening not to do business with any country or company that does business with North Korea may sound great, but our reliance on trade with China and Chinese companies precludes actually doing it.

Haley’s most striking rhetoric was her claim that Kim Jong-un is “begging for war.” That is simply untrue. He is deterring the US from a military strike, so far successfully, by demonstrating the North’s own military capabilities. It is far truer that President Trump in his tweets is begging for war, but the adults in the National Security Council and the Defense Department are likely showing him military options and consequences that are unappetizing at best, catastrophic at worst.

President Trump is not entirely to blame for this situation. The history of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is strewn with poor choices, both by American presidents and Pyongyang. The Americans have wanted to kick the can down the road. The North Koreans have preferred isolation to integration with the rest of the world. Neither the Americans nor the North Koreans have been willing to make decisions based on the real, but in the 1990s and 2000s long-term, threat of nuclear holocaust.

We are now approaching that long-term future. Haley has ruled out a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in exchange for a freeze on what the North quite reasonably views as hostile US and South Korean military preparations for a pre-emptive strike. The smart money is betting that is the best we are going to get, but Trump’s bluster precludes it. That said, he often backs down, after an effort at distraction. Bluster, distract, cave is his preferred style of (very poor) negotiation. He’d have done a lot better with an upfront assessment of his BATNA, which is what every first-year conflict management student learns at SAIS.

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