A powerful, animating ego is a prerequisite to success among national politicians, but US President Donald Trump takes self-confidence—and the blinders that come with it—to unprecedented heights. Characteristic of his drive and ambition is his claim at the Republican National Convention, after securing the party’s nomination to be its 2016 presidential candidate: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”1 After two years in office, Trump has lost no faith in his singular ability to remedy the problems that perplexed his predecessors and bedevil his country. Most objective assessments of Trump’s record differ from that of the president. When it comes to dealing with North Korea, however, Trump’s assertion of his own unique abilities may be more correct than many give him credit.
There is a logic to why Trump “alone” can fix the problems posed by North Korea, and it proceeds as follows. First, it should be clear that traditional ways of dealing with Pyongyang have failed. The US, its partners, and allies were unable to halt the North’s nuclear weapons program, an objective Pyongyang has pursued with ruthless determination. The country endured considerable economic hardship, suffered international isolation, and the alienation of its most important partners to achieve that goal. A new policy was needed.
Second, while cognizant of the failure of US policy – it is hard to miss – the national security bureaucracy has been slow to explore genuine alternatives. Unable to achieve its objectives – North Korea’s final, fully verified denuclearization2 – the US tendency has either been to disengage and thereby surrender the initiative to Pyongyang or double down on its existing approach by calling for more sanctions. (This failure is not unique to North Korea policy; bureaucracies rarely embrace radical policy change on important national security concerns. Such shifts demand attention and resources from the very highest elements of national leadership. Bureaucrats are responsible for carrying out policy not transforming it.)
Third, North Korea’s central place in US national security calculations in Northeast Asia and the persistent failure of successive administrations to address that threat demanded a Trump-like figure to bring about change. President Bill Clinton reached the brink of a breakthrough with North Korea, hosting Vice Marshall Jo Myong-rok, the highest-ranking North Korean to meet a US president, in the White House in October 2000 and then nine days later dispatching Secretary of State Madeline Albright to Pyongyang, where she was feted by then supreme leader Kim Jong-il. Yet, even after that preparation, Clinton was not prepared to take the final step and risk a trip to North Korea to try to close a deal with Kim. While many believe that was the right decision then (and remain steadfast in that belief now), the point is that Clinton lacked the singular self-confidence – “I alone can fix it” – that allowed Trump to conclude otherwise and meet Kim Jong-Un in Singapore.
That leads to the fourth point: North Korean decision making on such matters is extremely centralized, likely the province of just the supreme leader himself. Clinton demurred in 2000 because the groundwork for a deal had not been done; he was told that if he went to Pyongyang, all things were possible3 – a position he had to accept on faith as his interlocutors were unable to speak for Kim Jong-il. Clinton relied on traditional processes and practices of diplomacy – letting his team work out virtually all details of an agreement in advance (in consultation with him, of course), after which he would close the deal). That was prudent, but it ignored decision making dynamics in Pyongyang. No deal was possible unless a US president made a leap of faith, and Trump – who distrusted his bureaucracy, ignored history, and had supreme confidence in his own abilities to close the deal – deemed himself just the person to strike an agreement with the North. As the second summit with Kim Jong-un approaches, there has been reporting that the primary and most enthusiastic advocate for the meeting is the president himself. While his staff has been cautious, Trump was reported to have “bragged,” in a phone call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, “that he is the only person who can make progress on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.”4
Trump employs another technique that allows him to claim that only he can solve a problem. He inflates a threat to hyperbolic proportions – threatening to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea is the best example5 – and then steps in to calm the furor. The hyperventilation transforms an issue, allowing a retreat to the status quo ante to be called a solution. The president is not beyond rewriting history – claiming, for example, that the US was about to go to war with North Korea under President Obama and only Trump stopped the slide into conflict6 – to allow him to claim to have succeeded where his predecessors failed. By inventing a problem, Trump can then say that he fixed it. And, worryingly, the more inflated the threat, the easier it is for him to claim that extreme measures are justified to address it. “Only I can fix it” becomes a justification for the possession of more power and authority to exercise the discretion that only he is fit to use.
This is the reasoning that validates Trump’s claim that he alone can fix the North Korean problem.
There is, however, a second interpretation of his boast, and that is that he alone – without allies or partners – can fix the problems the country faces. While Trump’s readiness to make bold gambles is worrisome, the belief that he can address those challenges without regard to US alliances and commitments is more dangerous. Sadly, the president is ready to act alone and disregard the concerns of his allies and partners. His decision to suspend US-ROK military exercises following his first meeting with Kim in Singapore, apparently made without consultation or advance warning, triggered alarm in Seoul and Tokyo, where both security establishments expressed concern about a deterioration in their ability to address the North Korean military threat. Those governments fear a similarly spontaneous decision after the second summit in Hanoi. Trump has a longstanding disdain for US alliances, convinced that allies use them to get the US to pay for their defense, encouraging free- or cheap-riding. Washington’s readiness to agree to only a one-year renewal of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) with South Korea has some in the ROK fearful that the US is preparing to pull its forces from the Korean Peninsula. A decision to do that – swapping a US forward presence for an end to the North Korean threat to the US homeland – is one way to “fix” a problem by acting alone – and in the process do untold damage to US credibility and commitment, the security of its allies and regional stability.
The impact on allies
Plainly, Trump’s approach is problematic for the US’s two Northeast Asian allies, South Korea and Japan. It obliges their leadership to put their faith in a mercurial, temperamental leader who is not popular among their public. Pew data shows that 54 percent of South Koreans and 56 percent of Japanese have “no confidence in US President Donald Trump to do the right thing in world affairs.”7 This disconnect can be jarring, when for example, Moon introduced the president to his National Assembly in November 2017 as “leader of the world,” who was “already making America great again.” Later, he asserted that Trump deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.8
Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has also been sharply criticized for his support for the US president. Well aware of Trump’s inexperience and limited understanding of foreign affairs, his longtime animosity toward Japan, and the limited cards the prime minister has to play in dealing with his US counterpart, Abe has made cultivation of the president and the forging of close personal ties a cornerstone of his diplomacy.9 That effort may have reached its apogee when he reportedly wrote a letter – at US urging – nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. Revelation of that nomination – by Trump no less – resulted in embarrassing questioning of Abe in the Diet and sniggers elsewhere.10
For Moon, support for Trump has become the ballast of his presidency. The pursuit of inter-Korean relations has become the all-consuming objective, overshadowing other policy goals – or compensating for a lack of progress in them. Discontent with Moon’s priorities is mounting as ROK unemployment climbs – in January the figures reached the highest level in 19 years – and other structural problems (demographics, in particular) undermine the country’s future prospects. The progressive president’s long-sought ambition to restructure the Korean economy and reduce the power of the chaebol has been overshadowed as well. Yul Shin explained that “Inter-Korean relations have been the only thing going well for the Moon government.”11 To put it another way, Moon’s “political fortunes at home have become increasingly tied to the whims of the two unpredictable leaders.”12
Abe is similarly bound to Trump. He too has been frustrated in the realization of his top political priorities, despite considerable effort.13 Japan’s economy has rebounded over years of stagnation, but the scourge of deflation persists. Hopes of settling the Northern Territories dispute with Russia – islands seized by Moscow as WWII ended that Japan still claims and which have prevented the two countries from signing a final peace agreement to this day – are fading despite the Abe’s administration’s unprecedented efforts to strike a deal. Prospects for reforming Japan’s constitution, a dream of Abe’s and like-minded conservatives, are also dimming. Finally, Pyongyang continues to stiff-arm Tokyo on talks over the fate of abductees – Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by North Korean agents whose fate remains unknown – effectively denying Japan any role in North Korean diplomacy (save for that of spoiler, a dangerous place for it to be) and punishing Abe, the Japanese politician who has been the strongest advocate of the abductees and who has made resolution of the issue a pillar of his political career. As a result, Abe is forced to rely on Trump’s assurances that he will make the abductees a priority in his talks with Kim, a commitment that he has repeatedly made to the prime minister.14 Publicly, Japanese officials profess their faith in the president – what option do they have? – but Trump’s readiness to improvise and his eagerness to reach a deal have unnerved many in Tokyo. Reporting on the eve of the second summit that the president privately considers “human rights in North Korea largely inconsequential to striking a denuclearization deal” indicates that worry is justified.15
Tailored diplomacy and the ‘not my fault’ corollary
Seoul and Tokyo should be worried by Trump’s free-wheeling approach to negotiations. The president is notorious for a lack of preparation before meetings, preferring to rely on his gut. That inclination is abetted by his distrust of the US national security bureaucracy and his belief that he is the smartest person in any room he enters. Pyongyang, a cunning diplomatic opponent, seeks to exploit that tendency, cutting out most intermediaries and reducing the negotiating process to one-on-one meetings between heads of state. Victor Cha, a former National Security Council staff member who served as a deputy of the US team at the Six-Party Talks, notes that “the North Koreans know that they can get a better deal from the president, so they’d rather talk to just him.”16 Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho, who defected in 2016, agrees, arguing that Pyongyang has “tailor made” its diplomacy for Trump.” Kim Jong-un is “trying to give the impression that there’s no one between them, so that Trump will talk to him and shut his ears to his own staff.”17
Ironically, while Trump is ready to take credit for any success, he has proven unwilling to be responsible for any failure. In 2013, he tweeted that, according to his definition of leadership, “Whatever happens, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible,” a formulation he subsequently repeated several times.18 Yet, as his presidency has progressed, Trump has frequently insisted that events are beyond his control. He has adopted a verbal tic, “we’ll see what happens” – a phrase that he used several times in the runup to the Hanoi summit. One critic argues that this is a way of preparing the ground for failure and “minimizing his accountability” should that occur. It also allows him to say he warned of a negative outcome and thus was, again, correct.19
Worse, he has distanced himself from negative consequences of his decisions, whether fatalities that followed authorization of military missions – it was the generals who wanted to act – or failure to push through his legislative agenda – Senate Republicans were to blame – or even the US government shutdown, despite proudly declaring before TV cameras that he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security…. I will take the mantle of shutting down.”20 Yet, as that drama played out, Trump decided that “the buck stops with everybody.”21
That readiness to dodge accountability should worry Seoul and Tokyo. If talks with the North break down, the obvious target for blame should be Kim Jong-un. But Trump could focus elsewhere – on Moon for moving ahead aggressively in the pursuit of inter-Korean ties and undercutting Trump’s leverage or on Abe for pushing the abductee issue, which Pyongyang could use to kill a deal. For sure, the fault will not lie with the president: He only fixes problems. He does not create them.
2. The Trump administration prefers this phraseology to the previously used “complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID).
3. Julian Borger, “Two minutes to midnight: did the US miss its chance to stop North Korea’s nuclear program?” The Guardian, March 30, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/30/north-korea-us-nuclear-diplomacy-agreed-framework-1999-pyongyang-mission
4. Eliana Johnson, “Trump aids worry he’ll get outfoxed in North Korea talks,” Politico, February 22, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/02/22/trump-north-korea-nuclear-summit-hanoi-strategy-1179753
5. Noah Bierman, “Trump warns North Korea of ‘fire and fury,’” Los Angeles Times, August 8, 2017, https://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-trump-warns-north-korea-of-fire-and-1502220642-htmlstory.html
6. Amanda Macias, “Trump: Obama told me that he was ‘so close to starting a big war with North Korea,’” CNBC, February 15, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/15/trump-obama-told-me-that-he-was-close-to-starting-a-big-war-with-north-korea.html
7. Pew Research Center, “Trump’s international ratings remain low, especially among key U.S. allies,” October 1, 2018, p. 32, http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/10/01/trumps-international-ratings-remain-low-especially-among-key-allies/
8. Charlie Campbell, “The Short List: No. 5 Person of the Year 2018: Moon Jae-in,” Time, http://time.com/person-of-the-year-2018-moon-jae-in-runner-up/
9. This is explained in more detail in Brad Glosserman, “US-Japan relations,” The Asan Forum, June 29, 2018, https://asanforum.shoplic.site/us-japan-relations/
10. Euan McCurdy and Junko Ogura, “Japan’s Abe refuses to deny that he nominated Trump for Nobel Peace Prize,” CNN, February 18, 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/02/18/asia/trump-abe-nobel-prize-intl/index.html
11. Kim Tong-hyung, “2nd Trump-Kim summit crucial moment for Moon’s presidency,” The Washington Post, February 21, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/2nd-trump-kim-summit-crucial-moment-for-moons-presidency/2019/02/20/33ac87da-3575-11e9-8375-e3dcf6b68558_story.html?utm_term=.979e14217b04
12. Choe Sang Hun, “South Korea awaits second Trump-Kim summit with both hope and fear,” The New York Times, February 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/22/world/asia/south-korea-north-korea-trump-kim-summit.html
13. See for example, Brad Glosserman, “A tough year ahead for Mr. Abe,” PacNet, No. 2, January 2, 2019.
14. Yukio Tajima, ”Trump promises Abe he’ll raise abductee issue with Kim, ” Nikkei Asian Review, Feb. 21, 2019, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Trump-Kim-Summit/Trump-promises-Abe-he-ll-raise-abduction-issue-with-Kim
15. Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey, “ ‘We fell in love’: Trump and Kim shower praise, stroke egos on path to nuclear negotiations,” The Washington Post, February 25, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/we-fell-in-love-trump-and-kim-shower-praise-stroke-egos-on-path-to-nuclear-negotiations/2019/02/24/46875188-3777-11e9-854a-7a14d7fec96a_story.html?utm_term=.da2dfee562c1
16. Eliana Johnson, “Trump aids worry he’ll get outfoxed in North Korea talks.”
17. “Kim reportedly purging diplomatic ranks before summit,” The Japan Times, February 22, 2019, p. 5.
19. David Jackson, “Donald Trump’s next move on Iran, North Korea, Ronny Jackson? Let’s see,” USA Today, April 25, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/04/25/donald-trumps-next-move-north-korea-iran-ronny-jackson-well-see/549467002/
20. “Remarks by President Trump in Meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi,” December 11, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-meeting-senate-minority-leader-chuck-schumer-house-speaker-designate-nancy-pelosi/
21. Avi Selk, “‘The buck stops with everybody.’ How Trump twists clichés to do his bidding,” The Washington Post, January 11, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/president-trump-is-where-metaphors-go-to-die/2019/01/11/f1ff1644-1522-11e9-90a8-136fa44b80ba_story.html?utm_term=.abadbcc6ef05