North Korea, Partisanship, and Bad Ideas

The bankrupt ideology that led to the current standoff.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

President Trump’s vigorous response to North Korea’s threats, and the various reactions to the president’s language, created a teachable moment for understanding how we got to this foreign policy crisis––through a combination of short-sighted partisanship with persistent bad ideas about how to deal with international aggressors.

Trump’s comments about responding to North Korea’s aggression “with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” and his subsequent doubling down by saying that the threat “wasn’t tough enough” and our military was “locked and loaded,” were chum for the Democrats who reflexively condemn anything Trump says. “Bombastic” (Senator Dianne Feinstein), “unhinged” (Representative Eliot Engel) “bluster” (Susan Rice), “provocative” (Senator Ben Cardin), “reckless” (Senator Chuck Shumer) are typical examples. Most revealing of their “unhinged” partisanship is the comment of DNC Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, who said of Trump, “Kim Jong Un, the world always thought he was not a responsible leader. Well, he is acting more responsibly than this guy is.” 

But attacking a Republican president’s rhetoric is standard operating procedure for Democrats seeking partisan advantage, from the scorn heaped on Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” to the equal contempt for George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” NeverTrump Republicans should remember that no matter how decorous a Republican’s rhetoric, he will still be smeared as an “unhinged,” Neanderthal war-monger with an itchy trigger-finger.

But as usual, what is sauce for the Republican goose never is for the Democrat gander. In April 2014, while on a visit to South Korea Obama said that the U.S. “will not hesitate to use our military might” when it came to defending allies. Or how about when Bill Clinton issued the same threat in 1993, telling the North that if they attacked “we would quickly and overwhelmingly retaliate,” that such an attack “would mean the end of their country as they know it,” and that “they would pay a price so great that the nation would probably not survive as it is known today”? 

The substance of Obama’s, Clinton’s, and Trump’s comments is the same, only the intensity of the rhetoric different. Presumably Kim Jung Un, like professional Western diplomats, makes subtle distinctions between a bland threat to attack his country and a more explicit one, parsing words for nuances, signals, and connotations. Given that 30 years of such sober, judicious, and subtle diplomatic language did nothing to thwart the Kims’ nuclear ambitions, I’m inclined to think it’s time to try more direct language.

Aside from partisanship, criticism of Trump reflects the old Western bad idea that diplomatic engagement and dickering are always to be preferred to military action, and that signed agreements enforced by transnational institutions like the U.N. or the International Atomic Energy Agency can resolve interstate conflicts without resorting to the costly and politically risky use of force. But this ideal assumes that all the diverse countries of the world, with their different cultures, mores, and interests, value peaceful coexistence or “win-win” cooperation as much as we Westerners do. That thinking is the age-old mistake of interstate relations––the failure of imagination that keeps us from understanding mentalities and motives different from ours. We don’t want to admit that there are regimes who prefer violently satisfying their own interests or irrational passions to our notions of peace and prosperity through mutually beneficial cooperation.

Equally important are the dangers of diplomatic engagement with a determined aggressor. An enemy or rival, aware of our preference for words and process over force and action, will manipulate diplomatic engagement to buy time and extract concessions until he can achieve his aim. Unless his mind is concentrated otherwise, he will not be deterred by the overwhelming military advantage of his enemy, since he judges from his foe’s behavior that he has no will to act. He also understands that political leaders in a constitutional government who face regular elections are often unwilling to pay the political price for military action, and so will jump at the opportunity to use diplomacy as a way to stall––the bureaucratic euphemism is “strategic patience” –– until it is some other elected official’s problem. 

North Korea’s road to nuclear weapons is a perfect example of this danger, a massive failure on the part of two Democrat and two Republican presidencies. Just last year I gave a brief sample of this three-decades-long history of feckless diplomatic delusion:

  • In 1991, President George H.W. Bush withdrew 100 nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • A few months later, the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was signed, under which both countries agreed not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing.”
  • The next year the North signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and allowed in inspectors.
  • In March 1992, the U.S. had to impose sanctions on two companies in the North involved in developing missiles in violation of these signed treaties. In June new sanctions were imposed, and in September the International Atomic Energy Agency found discrepancies in North Korea’s initial report on its nuclear program.
  • In February 1993, the IAEA demanded inspections of two nuclear waste sites. The North refused, and the next month threatened to withdraw from the NPT. After talks in New York, at which the U.S. offered the North a light-water nuclear reactor, the North suspended its withdrawal. Late that year, the CIA estimated that North Korea had separated 12 kilograms of plutonium, enough for two weapons.

In just two years we see how a determined aggressor can manipulate the diplomatic process and exploit a rival or enemy it knows does not want to take action, whether from misplaced idealism or a self-interested political calculation. In the case of the North, the whole panoply of non-lethal tactics was used: Multilateral talks were held, threats were issued, promises made and broken, international institutions joined and repudiated; “carrots” ranging from food aid to nuclear reactors offered and delivered, “sticks” like feeble sanctions imposed, inspectors gulled, and moratoria and agreements serially violated by the North. As a result, in 2006 the North tested its first nuclear weapon, and today possess an estimated 60. And some intelligence now suggests that the North Koreans have mastered the technology for miniaturizing a warhead so it can be delivered by intercontinental missiles now capable of reaching the U.S.

Despite the failure of “engagement” to prevent a nuclearized North Korea, faith in diplomacy is still strong today. Usually it’s the Democrats, stealth pacifists and reflexively anti-military, who always want more “engagement,” no matter how many times it hasn’t worked in the past. Remember George W. Bush’s futile, months-long efforts––after years of failed diplomacy and 11 violated U.N. resolutions––to get the U.N. finally to authorize the removal of the psychopathic mass-murderer Saddam Hussein? That record of misplaced effort didn’t matter to Dems like Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who when the war started said that he was “saddened that the president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war.” Again, partisan advantage also lay behind this attitude. Howard Dean’s unexpected success in the primaries by running on an antiwar platform quickly convinced other candidats like Senators John Kerry and John Edwards to forget their earlier votes to authorize the war and jump on the antiwar bandwagon.

Predictably, today Trump’s critics also invoke the magical thinking of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, despite its long record of futility. Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example, garnished her criticisms of Trump’s rhetoric by calling on his administration to engage North Korea in “high-level dialogue without any preconditions.” So too Democrat’s ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed––who last month was caught on a hot mic calling the president “crazy” and “goofy” –– castigated Trump’s “unhelpful ad lib,” and said that the “U.S. and international community must work together to strategically apply pressure on North Korea at every point necessary to neutralize this threat.” He added, “When it comes to North Korea, the United States has many tools — diplomatic, financial, and others — to work with, not just military options.” That is, close the diplomatic barn door nearly a decade after the nuclear horse has escaped. This is the same sort of delusional faith that got us the terrible Iran deal, soon to be followed by a fanatical, apocalyptic cult in control of nuclear weapons.

If we think outside of the “diplomatic engagement” box, we’re more likely to find a way to contain the North. Like most international bullies verbally punching above their military weight, Kim Jung Un has shown a penchant for belligerent rhetoric and outrageous threats, so maybe measured and restrained diplomatic speech won’t reach him as effectively as Trump’s blunter and more direct language. This is the suggestion of Thomas H. Lee, professor of International Law and former Naval intelligence officer. He told Newsweek that Trump’s “somewhat unhinged, off the cuff rhetoric” may have convinced North Korea, China, and Russia that he is capable of attacking the North, which accounts for the latter two’s Security Council vote for the toughest sanctions on North Korea since 2006, something Obama couldn’t accomplish with his tepid empty threats.

Duff Cooper, who resigned in protest from Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet after the Munich debacle, remarked, “The Prime Minister has believed in addressing Herr Hitler in the language of sweet reasonableness. I have believed that he was more open to the language of the mailed fist.” After 30 years of the U.S. using the failed “language of sweet reasonableness,” Trump has used the “language of the mailed fist.” Now he must be ready to use the “mailed fist” if Kim Jung Un acts because he thinks Trump is bluffing.