Assessing President Trump’s next move on North Korea

“I would let Pyongyang know in no uncertain terms that it can either get out of the nuclear arms race or expect a rebuke”.[1]  These words, spoken by Donald Trump in 2000, seem to have become the guiding tenet of his foreign policy towards North Korea; yet the scale and final nature of such a rebuke remains to be seen.

President Trump’s shaky relationship with his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson has called into question the consistency of U.S. diplomatic efforts. Trump’s hardline approach has seemed to compromise and undermine the avenues of diplomacy, making very hard work for the State Department. Yet recent rumours of the Secretary’s imminent removal have been brushed aside and Tillerson’s latest overtures suggest that the U.S. approach could now be becoming more united.  Speaking at the UN Headquarters in New York, Tillerson omitted a line on U.S. openness to talks “without pre-conditions”[2]as well as directly rebutting the North Korean representative[3]; far from the traditional role of the Secretary of State.

So, is diplomacy off the table? With the U.S. apparently holding back and North Korea not being visibly receptive or amenable to talks in the current climate; China is brought into the diplomatic equation, but really only as an extension of Trump’s display of force. America is currently exploring the potential of secondary sanctions, i.e. going after Chinese companies doing business with North Korea[4]; a very direct and bold way of forcing China to intervene. A direct and ‘no-nonsense’ approach to dealing with North Korea has been Trump’s mantra since the election and recent events have only seemed to confirm this. So what explains this approach and perhaps more importantly, if talking has finished, will his rhetoric be converted to action?

Perhaps two historical examples can shed some light on Trump’s grandstanding. In 1968, North Korea seized the U.S. Navy ship Pueblo which led to a prolonged hostage situation and a perceived humiliation when the American president apologised to the North Koreans.[5] This idea of weakness and preventing such vulnerability was very prevalent in President Gerald Ford’s foreign policy, especially when North Korean troops murdered two U.S. Army officers in 1976. Ford ordered a U.S. infantry company, helicopters and B-52 bombers towards the demilitarised zone in Korea[6]; a bold stroke that seemingly diffused a larger conflict.

These examples plucked from the turbulent history of relations between these two countries perhaps reveal the importance of political posturing and grandstanding. If Ford’s actions were on the news today, we’d surely all be anxiously watching intently the hands of the doomsday clock. Yet, the show of force, not its execution was what provoked the required response in 1976. Therefore, rather than viewing Trump’s belligerent stance as a manifestation of his personality, perhaps we should look beyond that and delve into the patterns of past presidential behaviour. As we await the long-talked about rebuke, perhaps current U.S. bravado and escalation can in fact be perceived as the end in itself, a clear and unmistakable message for North Korea. Will President Trump’s direct and forceful approach provide the desired response this time around….time will tell.

[1] “Trump on the Issues”. [Accessed 17 December 2017]

[2] Borger, J. “Rex Tillerson scales back offer of opening dialogue with North Korea”. [Accessed 17 December 2017]

[3] Cohen, Z & Gaouette, N. “Tillerson confronts North Korea at UN” [Accessed 18 December 2017]

[4] Korte, G. “Trump promises new North Korea sanctions after latest missile test” [Accessed 18 December 2017]

[5] Lerner, M. ‘A Failure of Perception: Lyndon Johnson, North Korean Ideology, and the Pueblo  Incident’. Diplomatic History, 25 (4), (2001), pp. 647‐675.

[6] Reimann, M. “The U.S. and North Korea almost went to war over a single poplar tree in the demilitarised zone”. [Accessed 18 December 2017]

Article by Anthony Hayes

Photograph – The Daily Express


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