North Korea: incoherence is the worst strategy of all

Casey Thompson
December 9, 2017

When it comes to a threat like #North Korea, you’d think that showing a decisive, united front would be a no-brainer for the #White House. Unfortunately, cabinet members have been making an embarrassing series of efforts to insist that yes, they are on the same page when it comes to how to deal with Pyongyang.

On August 30th, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis went on the offensive to squash claims that he disagrees with President Trump over North Korea, saying that the press had misinterpreted his recent comments about how to handle the rogue state. Trump had tweeted a day earlier that the US has been talking to North Korea and “paying them extortion money” for 25 years – an apparent reference to previous US donations of food and other aid – adding, “Talking is not the answer!”

His tweet came shortly after North Korea launched a missile over Japan and was a significant shift from his statement in May that he might be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un.

Later that day, Mattis was asked if Trump’s tweet meant the end of diplomatic efforts and replied that the US is never out of such solutions, leading him to backtrack once again. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also among the officials who have underlined their support for dialogue.

Good cop-bad cop?

Some might say that such incoherence is all part of a good cop-bad cop strategy that the administration has carefully crafted to confuse America’s enemies. But so far, the signals coming from the White House have been far too inconsistent – and rash – for that.

In this case, willfully ignoring Trump’s most bombastic [VIDEO] statements, and hoping that more measured advisors like Mattis will steer him on the right path, isn’t going to cut it. If things go on like this, then the president will only end up stumbling into a dangerous and unpredictable dialogue with Kim Jong-un.

Which, experts say, is exactly what the North Koreans want.

Any meeting between the US and North Korean leaders – a trap that so far, American presidents have carefully avoided – would risk opening up the possibility of ratifying Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear power or decreasing Washington’s joint military exercises with #South Korea.

This, in turn, could seriously damage US ties with key allies like Japan and South Korea and play into the hands of Beijing, which has long supported direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

The prospect of direct discussions between US and North Korea is thus higher – and more dangerous – than ever before. Especially because Trump, in contrast with previous US presidents, sees himself as the ultimate dealmaker, believing that he can bait, switch, and lie as much as he likes to get his way.

What he doesn’t know, however, is that while such a strategy of unpredictability might work in the boardroom, it will only backfire in the realm of international diplomacy.

When it comes to negotiations with foreign powers, credible commitment and reliability is far more important than the capacity to engage in hyperbole. As political scientist Anne Sartori explains in her book, “Deterrence by Diplomacy”, heads of state refrain from bluffing in foreign relations because they want other countries to believe their promises – a key foundation for successful deterrence.

Equally as important as maintaining credibility for effective deterrence is exhibiting trustworthiness towards key allies – and due to his unpredictable rhetoric, Trump has been failing here, too.

Of course, there is substantial disagreement about what components should form the US response to North Korea. Except when it comes to one thing: forming a strong front with critical partners, notably Japan and South Korea.

Unfortunately, so far, the Trump administration has not been showing the kind of discipline that’s needed to manage coordination even within its own government, let alone with foreign allies, and has instead been leaving them unsure about US intentions.

For instance, Trump has already raised concerns about the US commitment to defend South Korea by repeatedly accusing Seoul of free-riding on American military protection, such as the THAAD missile defense system. And after the latest launch over Japan, the White House issued a statement that neglected to reaffirm the US commitment to defend any of its allies.

Frayed ties

It doesn’t help that on top of the US’ lack of interest in cultivating bilateral relations with these allies, ties between South Korea and Japan have been especially fraught in recent years due to unnecessary intransigence from the Korean side.

Of course, bilateral relations have always been relatively strained because of historical resentment that dates back to World War II. Recently, however, new South Korean President Moon Jae-in has gratuitously reopened old wounds by raising doubts about a landmark deal with Tokyo over the so-called “comfort women,” withdrawing the government’s previous acceptance of Japan’s apology.

Seoul’s refusal to set aside these differences in the face of new challenges is particularly appalling given South Korea’s own unacknowledged history of wartime crimes.

During the Vietnam War, South Korean soldiers raped and forcibly prostituted thousands of Vietnamese women and girls, resulting in the birth of thousands of more children of mixed ancestry who make up a marginalized group known as the “Lai Dai Han.”

Given Seoul’s inexplicable decision to continue stoking tensions with a key ally, it’s especially concerning that the Trump administration has failed to show the kind of coherence, let alone discipline, needed to manage interstate coordination.

A final complication? While advisors like Mattis and Tillerson might give off the impression of steering Trump in the right direction on North Korea, some of their own policies have also lacked coherence.

Most worrisome is the fact that administration has been gutting the State Department, leaving key vacancies like an assistant secretary for East Asian affairs unfilled. When it comes to dealing with North Korea, the White House needs to acknowledge this isn’t The Art of the Deal and invest in what really matters: our credibility, our foreign partnerships, and our diplomatic corps.