The standoff on the Korean Peninsula is tense, but stable—unless the American president disrupts it.
In a normal world, every politician in Washington would be alarmed if the U.S. president threatened to use nuclear weapons to destroy another nation, as President Donald Trump did on Tuesday. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he said during a photo op at his Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” To someone who had just awoken from a years-long coma, his remarks would have suggested that the world was on the brink of nuclear war. Indeed, historians in search of a rhetorical precedent had to go all the way back to President Harry Truman’s 1945 announcement of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.
But everyone in Washington is all too familiar now with Trump’s flatulent mouth. Thus, most powerful figures, including members of Trump’s own party and administration, discounted his words as mere hyperbole. “Don’t read too much into it,” a White House source told Politico reporter Josh Dawsey. Senator John McCain criticized Trump’s words, but added, “I don’t pay much attention anymore to what the president says because there’s no point in it. It’s not terrible what he said, but it’s kind of the classic Trump in that he overstates things.” The unanswered question is whether this habit of overstating things is not itself a massive problem.
The dilemma here is composed of two separate problems. One is the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula, which dates to the end of war there in 1953, but is now made more tense by North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities. The other is Trump himself, an uninformed and undisciplined oaf who likes to shoot from the hip. The first problem, the Korean standoff, is worrisome but also fundamentally stable; a solution is preferable, but not urgent. The second problem, the current American president, could trigger an actual war—and though the solution is urgent, no obvious one exists.
There’s a reason why the stand-off on the Korean Peninsula has lasted for nearly seven decades. It’s like the Cold War in miniature, where the furious rhetoric between opposing parties belies their fundamental commitment to the status quo. North and South Korea claim they want unification, but to judge by their actions over many decades, they think any shift from their uneasy peace would cause more trouble than it’s worth. The communist elites in North Korea have enough trouble maintaining power without an expanded territory, and the costs and complications of unification is one of the most divisive issues in South Korean politics. The impasse also works in the interests of outside powers. For China, an armed North Korea is a way to keep regional rivals South Korea and Japan, as well as the U.S., on their toes. For America, the threat of North Korea is the cement holding together its alliance in the region.
By this reading, dictator Kim Jong-un and the rest of the Korean elite are fundamentally rational, albeit cruel. They’re committed to maintaining absolute power, but not suicidal. They use nuclear brinksmanship to maintain their grip on society, the fear of outside attack helping to fuel nationalism and suppress dissent. As with the Cold War, the main danger is that the nations blunder into nuclear war through miscommunication, where one party misinterprets ritualistic brinksmanship as a genuine threat. This almost happened on several occasions in the Cold War, notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Enter Trump. There is a massive discrepancy between the actual policies of the U.S. government, generally a continuation of President Barack Obama’s approach of containment, and Trump’s bellicose words. In a series of tweets, New York Times reporter Max Fisher laid out the case that America’s actions are more important than Trump’s words, giving five reasons that “I wouldn’t worry too much.”
The second reason, he wrote, is that in international relations, “actions speak eleventy billion times louder than words. And US actions right now scream continuity and status quo. The U.S., in its lack of actions, is telling North Korea very clearly that it should ignore Trump’s words as largely meaningless.” Third, “No side benefits from escalation to conflict.” Fourth, “States are biased toward assuming other states will maintain status quo approach.” And last, “If we can’t even agree what Trump meant, North Koreans sure won’t know. So they’ll simply disregard it.”
Fisher’s argument is plausible so long as the North Korean elite interprets Trump the way Washington does: as a bullshit artist prone to blunder. But is that something North Koreans are likely to do? Is it even wise on their part to do so?
Nuclear deterrence theory is predicated on a world governed by rational actors. In the standoff with North Korea, Trump is a destabilizing force because there is no reason to believe he is rational. Aside from his well-documented ignorance and history of erratic behavior, there’s the added complication of his presidency being under siege by the investigation into Russian collusion with his presidential campaign. As Jonathan Chait recently argued in New York magazine, war would provide Trump with a much-needed diversion from scandal: “Trump could regain public standing through the rally-round-the-flag effect that usually occurs following a domestic attack or at the outset of a war.” Veteran reporter Elizabeth Drew noted Wednesday on Twitter that during the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon twice put the American military on high alert. But Nixon, though a madman in his own right, was much more assured in foreign policy than Trump is.
The Western press is calling this “the North Korean crisis.” That’s not really accurate. There exists a longstanding deadlock with North Korea, one which a normal, rational U.S. president would be able to manage with firmness. But America doesn’t have a normal, rational president. The real crisis is not on a distant peninsula in Asia; it’s on a golf course somewhere in New Jersey.