Oct 8, 2017

Trump's gamble on North Korea

Photo: Ahn Young-joon / AP

I got a spate of "Yikes!" emails after President Trump's "only one thing will work" tweet yesterday, which looks like pretty blatant saber-rattling against North Korea.

  • A White House official, asked to elaborate on "only one thing," said: "The President is a decisive leader and when there is more to say or understand, you will know. Until then, the world is watching."
  • Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, tweeted in response to a question about how other world leaders react to these tweets: "They mostly recognize they're completely disconnected from policy."

And that's usually our advice to you: Watch what he does, not what he says or tweets.

  • It's the assumption of many people around Trump, and perhaps the president himself, that these outbursts are cost-free: It gets the media in a tizzy, and diverts attention from current problems to a new cliffhanger.
  • But what if Kim Jong-un takes the bait? We saw during the campaign that Trump is adept at getting an opponent's goat (see water-guzzling "Little Marco").

So we're counting on an unstable, insecure 33-year-old (with nukes!) to brush off Trump's taunts.

  • There was a bit of reassurance this week from a top CIA official, who said at George Washington University that Kim's actions aren't those of a madman, but a "rational actor" motivated by long-term goals that revolve around ensuring regime survival, CNN reported.
  • And a senior administration official told Jonathan Swan recently that the U.S. government doesn't believe Kim Jong-un is suicidal: There's a reason he's threatening to fire rockets within range of Guam, not at Guam.
  • One student of Trump emails: "Trump thinks he is leveraging Kim's fear of war. Trump believes Kim will fear Trump's unpredictability. This is an unsophisticated and uninformed view of Kim."

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me that Trump "seems to think that this sort of threat will persuade North Korea or China or both to reconsider their ways."

  • "It will have just the opposite effect with North Korea, and is highly unlikely to get China to change its policy, as he has not given them any incentive to do so. I also expect these tweets will cause consternation in Seoul."
  • "Why "the opposite effect"? "Trump's threats will reinforce North Korea's sense that it needs nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles, in order to deter American military action and efforts to bring about regime change. They look at Ukraine and Iraq and Libya and see nukes as a security blanket."

A former top Obama national-security official told me the tweets are "certainly bolstering the madman storyline" — that there's no telling what Trump may do. But the official offered this reality check:

  • There are 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea right now, and 230,000 additional U.S. citizens (including families of those service members).
  • Keep an eye on flights to Japan: Evacuation drills are conducted every year. If the U.S. ever had to evacuate its citizens, that's where they'd go first.
  • "Just something to keep an eye on if this is anything more than mind games."

Be smart: None of this may matter. Ian Bremmer told me yesterday that the U.S. is on the road to eventually recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power, regardless of Trump.

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