Trump and the North Korean Tipping Point

South Korean soldiers face off with North Korean soldiers at Panmunjom in 2013. (Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/Reuters)
The president’s potential meeting with Kim Jong Un would come at a time when American foreign policy is rapidly changing.

The world has been stunned by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s announcement last week that he was suspending his country’s nuclear tests in preparation for the impending meeting with President Trump. Even critics have had to concede that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric since last summer regarding the North Korean threat may have actually paid off — especially when his “speak loudly and wave a big stick” approach to foreign policy is backed by the real use of force, as demonstrated by the recent air strikes in Syria.

How sincere are Kim’s promises? Trump skeptics like to point out that Kim has announced suspensions of his nuclear program before. But Kim made one other concession last week that has gone largely unnoticed but is even more significant for the future: He withdrew his previous demand that U.S. troops leave the Korean peninsula before any discussion of denuclearization. That means any deal struck on shutting down North Korea’s nuclear program may well be separate from the status of U.S. forces in Korea — and America’s strategic role in the region.

Trump’s success points the way to a major realignment of the balance of power in East Asia. For that reason, it’s time to pause to consider how Trump’s approach to foreign-policy issues such as North Korea, and that of national-security adviser John Bolton, differs from the approach of his predecessors — and represents a revolution in America’s relations with the rest of the world.

The contrast with Trump’s two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, could not be sharper. Both Obama and Bush were animated by grand visions of the U.S. leading the world toward a new era of peace and stability, either (in Bush’s case) through an ever-widening process of coalition-building on the multilateral level and state-building on the bilateral level, or (in Obama’s) via “strategic patience” and “leading from behind,” phrases Obama’s foreign-policy team made famous — or rather notorious.

Both represented the last fading legacies of Woodrow Wilson’s idea that America has a providential mission to make the world safe for democracy (which then became keeping the world free from Communism or, more recently, free from terror) and to fight only wars that will end all wars (otherwise to stay out of them altogether). That idea has animated to a greater or lesser degree the foreign policy of every American president from Wilson and FDR to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — as well as Bush and Obama.

A continued U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula is essential to our interests no matter what.

Trump, however, has shrugged off the Wilsonian mantle of great ideals and global agendas. The very narrowness of Trump’s vision — how do I make America strong and influential again? — has led to a clarity of aim, and an efficiency of method, that includes the threat of military force (which he demonstrated in Syria is no idle threat) which constitutes a revolution in itself. Since Vietnam, unilateral U.S. military action has been seen as almost uniquely immoral; liberals and other critics see just the threat of using it as almost equally immoral, unless it comes with the diplomatic trappings of U.N. resolutions and a “coalition of the willing.”

Even Trump was careful to bring along Britain and France for the most recent airstrikes in Syria. But with North Korea, Trump has thrown those restraints on threats of unilateral force overboard, and in doing so has brought the state of affairs on the Korean peninsula to a tipping point.

Of course, there are still important grounds for caution. “Never trust and always verify” has to be the watchword of the day, and not just in dealing with Kim. It will be incumbent on the Trump administration to watch China’s every move during these proceedings. Beijing would like nothing more than to see the defusing of Korean tensions take away the rationale for continuing the U.S. troop presence in South Korea — troops who have guarded this vital East Asian strategic perimeter since 1950. Put another way: China has consistently used a rogue North Korea to divide and distract the U.S. and its allies in the region. It will be happy to look for ways to use a defanged North Korea in the same way, especially to get the U.S. to leave South Korea, so that Beijing can dominate two Koreas both eager for reunification.

That’s why a continued U.S. presence on the peninsula is essential to our interests no matter what happens, both as an insurance policy against malfeasance by Pyongyang and as a check on Beijing’s regional ambitions.

The other insurance policy against bad faith by Pyongyang is technical, not diplomatic: namely a ballistic-missile-defense shield that includes a system for using drones armed with hyperkinetic interceptor missiles to conduct boost-phase interception of North Korean missile launches. This system, which I have described in earlier NRO columns, is gaining supporters in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Appropriations for the development of such a system are no longer just a possibility, but fast becoming a probability. It will be an essential tool, along with the rest of our ballistic missile-defense system, to deter future North Korean missile threats if negotiations fail — which, in the case of North Korea, they often do.

Even so, Trump’s foreign-policy revolution will remain — and the world and America are still waking up to what a transformation it really is.

Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the author of, most recently, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2021).


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