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Trump strategy on North Korea may be forestalling real change

President Trump and Kim Jong un

Soon after winning the presidency, Donald Trump announced that he planned a new policy towards North Korea. “The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed,” he tweeted. “That patience is over.” His administration did not seem exactly sure about what direction this path would go, but officials agreed it would be different from what they had inherited. Trump, boasted his secretary of state, had “abandoned the failed policy of strategic patience,” in favor of “a policy of pressure.” Almost everyone agreed it was necessary. The earlier path was ineffective. Change was justified.

What has been forgotten in the frenzy to shape that change, however, is a critical point: strategic patience may actually have been working. Abandoning it for the current course may just extend the life of a ruthless dictatorship while diminishing American influence in this critical region.{mosads}

Politically, the worst thing about strategic patience was its name, which conjured up mental images of a passive United States watching while North Korea ran amok. It is true that while Obama did take some steps against the North, his efforts were hardly as stringent as they could have been. Yet, we need to remember the larger context of those policies. Rather than getting stronger, North Korea at the time faced growing internal challenges. The nation that the young Kim Jong Un inherited after his father’s 2011 death seemed more unstable than at any time in decades. The ruling system, left to its own devices, might have been forced to accept change in order to avoid collapse. Instead, the Trump administration’s about-face may have inadvertently provided it with reinforcements.

Kim faced two significant threats when he came to power. First was the growth of the market economy inside the North. The horrific famines of the mid-1990s had destroyed the public distribution system that for decades had delivered critical food and other supplies to his people. To survive, North Koreans created local markets to exchange goods and services. These small markets soon evolved into a loosely coordinated network of capitalist exchange that challenged the fundamental precepts of the state-controlled system and yet were so vital to survival that even the Kim regime dared not eliminate them. This emerging system taught residents about competition and incentives; it created a growing middle class that demanded the government accept and even encourage private markets; it drove residents to seek greater connections with the outside world to obtain goods; and above all else, it shattered the image of the Kim family as the nation’s great provider. The famously reclusive communist state was under assault by the forces of capitalism, and in the end, wrote one hopeful defector, “the market shall set North Korea free.”

This market revolution was accompanied by the increasing challenge of soft power. Technological advance allowed elements of western culture to be loaded onto flash drives and cell phones and smuggled into the North. Recent defectors speak of the pervasiveness of western television, film, and music, and the impact it has had on public perceptions. Although anyone caught with these materials can be executed, millions take that risk, and in doing so have realized the extent of the North’s repression and backwardness, especially in comparison to their Southern rival. “When North Koreans watch Desperate Housewives, they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,” explained one defector. “They see the leisure, the freedom…And when that happens, it starts a revolution in their mind.”

Kim thus inherited power at a time when North Korea seemed headed for dramatic change. Although he was never close to being ousted, Kim seemed to recognize that the nation was changing around him, and that perpetuating his regime over the long run would likely require some accommodations. Playing the long game of strategic patience made sense in such circumstances, when the most significant threats were landing in the lap of the opposition. Despite much North Korea bluster and many colorful threats, time was on the side of the U.S. Then Donald J. Trump came to office, bringing with him his hatred of all things Obama.

Trump’s willingness to open negotiations with the North might have been a wise policy if it was done with planning and coordination, but it wasn’t. Instead, Trump followed a haphazard and improvised diplomatic process that has largely benefited Kim. Summit meetings have been widely used for propaganda inside the North, helping Kim solidify his domestic image as a respected world leader. Engagement without pre-conditions has also helped normalize the tyrannical regime, hampering the efforts of human rights groups to exert pressure, and making it more difficult to re-impose the dramatic economic sanctions that Trump, to his credit, had implemented earlier. The process has also exacerbated tensions between the U.S. and South Korea. South Korean president Moon Jae-in is clearly willing to make more significant concessions at this point than the U.S., aggravating some of the deeper strains in the relationship that Trump’s earlier missteps brought to the fore. In the era of strategic patience, anyone who had suggested that Korea’s future might involve stronger ties across the 38th parallel and weaker ties across the Pacific Ocean would have been laughed out of the room. In the era of Donald Trump, such a future may be developing around us.

Readers as old as I am will remember the 1983 movie War Games, in which a high school student played by Matthew Broderick hacks into a Defense Department computer to play war games, and instead almost sparks a nuclear war. At the critical moment, Broderick convinces the computer to stand down by teaching it not to play games that can’t be won. “Strange game,” the computer wisely declares. “The only winning move is not to play.” The computer had learned one of the hardest lessons of foreign policy, one that President Trump has ignored: sometimes the best policy is to do nothing.

Mitchell Lerner is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for Korean Studies at The Ohio State University, and associate editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations. Follow him on twitter @MitchellLerner.

Tags Donald Trump Kim dynasty Kim Jong-un North Korea

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