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Trump’s response to North Korea is both predictable and counterproductive

President Trump Holds Joint News Conference With The Amir Of Kuwait (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

After North Korea tested its biggest nuclear device ever on Sunday, President Donald Trump responded with the kind of harsh language that’s become increasingly normal in his administration. He blasted a US ally, South Korea, for being soft on the North, and made threats against the Kim regime.

“South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” the president tweeted on September 3. Later that day, when asked by reporters if he was planning to use force against North Korea, he said simply, “we’ll see.”

Despite Trump’s casual talk of possible war, however, Washington’s approach to the crisis quickly went back to the tried-and-true language of diplomacy and sanctions. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave a speech calling for the “strongest possible” new international sanctions on Pyongyang during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. It’s not clear any sanctions package would make it through the council, where North Korean allies China and Russia have vetoes, and nor is there good evidence that more sanctions would actually change North Korea’s behavior.

Still, the US push for new sanctions highlights a key element of Trump’s handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Whenever Pyongyang does something provocative like a new missile test, Trump talks tough, but doesn’t follow his rhetoric with any kind of actual aggressive response.

The president who prides himself on being unpredictable has fallen into a predictable pattern — one that’s surely not going to fix the North Korea crisis.

“We [keep] doing the same thing: tough talk, more sanctions, claiming we’re gonna stand with our allies, claiming that somehow China can solve it,” says Dave Kang, the director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. “The latest sanctions [in early August] were the toughest ever. What did we get from that? A missile test and a nuclear test.”

The North Korea tantrum cycle

This same series of events has already happened twice before this year. When North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in late July, Trump threatened to respond to North Korea threats against the US with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The comment led to fevered talk about whether the US was poised to go to war with North Korea. In the end, though, there was no substantive shift in US policy.

Then, on August 28, North Korea fired a missile over Hokkaido, an island in the north of Japan. The administration issued a statement saying that “all options are on the table,” a clear implication that a military option was being considered. Then Trump tweeted that diplomatic options had been taken off the table, and that other unspecified-but-ominous alternatives were being considered:

Once again, though, American policy didn’t change in any fundamental way. The US didn’t cut off its single publicly known line of communication with the North, at the UN compound in New York. The Navy didn’t move a carrier group into position to threat a strike. Washington said aggressive things and then ... nothing happened.

The Trump response has gotten so predictable, in fact, that you can break it down piece-by-piece. Here’s how it works:

  1. North Korea does something aggressive and scary, like a nuclear test.
  2. The president, either in a tweet or in a press conference, says something extremely belligerent in response.
  3. Administration officials, if they comment, tend to either issue similarly vague threats or do as much damage control as they can.
  4. Trump’s harsh words prompt little or no change in US policy — at most, additional sanctions are imposed on a country that’s long been isolated from most of the global economy.
  5. North Korea does something else provocative, in part to show it won’t kowtow to US threats — and the whole cycle begins again.

That last part, about inciting North Korea, is crucial.

The North’s nuclear program is borne out of fear of a US invasion; its domestic propaganda hinges on selling itself as the protector of the North Korean people against American imperialists. That, to many experts, is the clearest explanation of why North Korea typically responds to US military threats with acts of defiance, like missile or nuclear tests, that raise tensions on the Korean peninsula even higher. North Korea’s 69th anniversary is coming up on Saturday, sparking fears that they’ll take the opportunity to make another show of force in response to the US.

“We could slow down the proliferation if we didn’t threaten them as much, because of course they’re responding to our threats,” Kang says. “It’s tit-for-tat.”

What we’re stuck in, then, is a perpetual feeling of crisis on the Korean peninsula — created in part by the Trump administration’s own rhetoric.

North Korea has done provocative things before Trump, and would almost certainly have been doing them if Hillary Clinton had won the election instead. But the Trump approach seems designed to guarantee even more bad behavior by North Korea. And if one of the North’s shows of strength goes too far — as it almost did in 2010, when they sank a South Korean destroyer — then the perception of crisis may give way to an actual disaster.

“If anybody now was serious about containment and deterrence [of North Korea], they would be doing the exact opposite of what they’re doing now,” says Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at Yale Law School who studies North Korea.