How Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Strategy Got North Korea to the Table

President Donald Trump. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s October 24, 1999 Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert is a historically illuminating flash forward to the most surprising, promising and history-altering opportunity since the Soviet Union collapsed: “denuclearizing” North Korea without the could-be belligerents waging a hideously destructive war that scars East Asia and seeds a global economic depression.

Yes, those are the stakes: millions of dead and trillions of debt.

In the interview, Russert says Trump once indicated if he were president he would attack North Korea preemptively in order to end its nuclear threat.

Despite Russert’s vapors and wailing, Trump’s grammatically-challenged beer and barbecue answer is a superb twofer. One: Trump answers Russert’s core question. Two: Trump accurately summarizes the American government’s spaghetti-spined responses to North Korea’s slow but insidious quest for nuclear weapons.

Trump says, “First I’d negotiate and be sure I could get the best deal possible… These people in three or four years are going to have nuclear weapons… The biggest problem this world has is nuclear proliferation. And we have a country out there in North Korea which is sort of whacko, which is not a bunch of dummies and they are developing nuclear weapons… If that negotiation doesn’t work then better solve the problem now than solve it later.”

Trump continues, “…Jimmy Carter, who I really like, he went over there. It was so soft these people are just laughing at us…. You know that this country went out and gave them nuclear reactors, free fuel for 10 years, we virtually tried to bribe them into stopping and they’re continuing to do what they are doing. And they are laughing at us… You want to do it in five years when they have warheads all over the place, every one of them pointed to New York City, to Washington… Is that when you want to do it? You’d better do it now. And if they think you’re serious… They’ll negotiate and it’ll never come to that.”

Trump is a man who intuitively seeks and finds leverage in business negotiations, and his reply to Russert reflects that. Since his election in November 2016, that skill is now applied to two entwined problems from Hell that for six decades have boggled U.S. foreign policy officials and the vain goblins at the Council on Foreign Relations: ending The Korean War and halting nuclear proliferation.

* * *

On March 5, remarkable news broke: North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un said he is willing to discuss denuclearizing his regime. He made no demand on South Korea and the U.S., other than that they meet to discuss the subject face to face. The South Korean delegation that met with him in Pyongyang indicated Kim said he understood South Korean and American joint military drills would continue. That was a major concession. For decades the Communist state’s propagandists have portrayed allied military exercises as preparations for an invasion of the North. In exchange for negotiations, the Kim regime would demand the allies suspend exercises. Not this time. Moreover, the dictatorship also agreed to halt its provocative nuclear weapons and missile tests while talks continue.

Is this a breakthrough? Possibly. Trump tweeted on March 6: “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”

The Kim regime, from Granddad Kim Il Sung (he invaded South Korea in June 1950) to Grandson Kim Jong Un (he assassinated his own brother in February 2017), has a record for vicious duplicity, mendacity and criminality. Genocidal starvation of its own citizens is another Kim clique sin. The Kim regime could use negotiations to buy time to deploy a nuclear weapon deliverable by ICBM—a trick it pulled on the Clinton administration. It could reject the intrusive verification regimen assured compliance requires—and the regimen Trump 2018 has in mind would frustrate any Saddamesque sidesteps and UN inspector gimmickry Kim might try.

That said, Kim putting denuclearization on the agenda is a yuge concession on the part of the dictator and his criminal regime.

To reemphasize, denuclearization is Trump administration shorthand for America’s strategic goal on the Korean peninsula: no nuclear weapons in either the North or the South.

Claims Trump is giving spur of the moment diplomatic recognition to North Korea are vapors from the vain goblins. It doesn’t matter where the face to face occurs. If Kim wants it in Pyongyang, fine, as long as the 82nd Airborne Division and a tank brigade from 1st Cav handle the security perimeter. You won’t allow paratroopers and tanks, Rocket Man? Then we hold this Biggest Show On Earth somewhere else.

As for the spur of the moment slur? Trump said in 1999 he’d talk but the talk would be serious. Okay, the context of serious must be established, and hang on, Vain Goblins, we’ll get to that. It’s a critical Or Else.

Diplomats and spies and journalists and Democrats talk with criminal regimes and terrorists every day without giving the rogues an embassy. Trump is not a spy, he is not a journalist, he is not a Council on Foreign Relations diplomat, and he isn’t a Democrat. Thank God.

Just note before the talks begin that The Donald’s got Little Rocket Man on record committed to a testing freeze with no nukes in North Korea on the meet-up agenda. And the freeze is—to be Reaganesque—a “trust but verify” kinda freeze. A freeze that has to meet serious conditions. Or no meet-up.

* * *

Which takes us back to serious.

In March 2017, Trump’s foreign policy team of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence and the tweeter-in-chief himself began a coordinated attack on Kim Jong Un’s miserable regime, with the interim goals of disrupting Pyongyang’s political and military plans, exposing the regime’s grave weaknesses, psychologically rattling its leader, and determining if the plump brat was educable or merely a homicidal fat rat dead set on his own extermination. Team Trump’s ultimate goal was to set conditions for achieving the long-range goal: denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

On March 17, 2017, Tillerson said: “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table.”

Tillerson added, seemingly off-handedly, that if North Korea didn’t end its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, why, Japan and South Korea might have to acquire their own nuclear arsenals.

In a March 2017 interview with the Independent Journal Review, Tillerson put 21st century muscle on Trump’s 1999 strategic guidance:

“Well, the first steps are the UN sanctions. There are broader sanctions that we can consider. I think that there are additional actions that the UN, that we can consider. There [is] broader participation by other countries in putting pressure on North Korea. So, this is a staged approach in which we want to give the North Korean government time to understand what’s happening, time to make decisions and adjust. We’re not… it’s not our objective to force them into some brash action. It’s our objective for them to understand things only continue to get more difficult if they don’t change their path. We want to give you time to change your path.”

In regards to China, Tillerson said, “No one issue defines the relationship between the U.S. and China. We will be talking about a broad range of issues when I’m in Beijing. But the threat of North Korea is imminent. And it has reached a level that we are very concerned about the consequences of North Korea being allowed to continue on this progress it’s been making on the development of both weapons and delivery systems. And it’s reached a very alarming state to us.”

Tillerson’s statements were an explicit repudiation of the Obama-era policy as expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrat presidential candidate in 2016: “The approach that our administration is taking is of strategic patience in close coordination with our six-party allies.”

In April 2017, Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea to deliver the message that Americans are 100 percent aligned with that country. According to Pence, economic and political isolation is the predicate for North Korean denuclearization. Pence gave a more expansive but still focused description. “…President Trump,” Pence said, “is absolutely committed to marshalling the energy of the world community, in countries in the Asian-Pacific, to use economic and diplomatic power to isolate North Korea and achieve a goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula.” The coercive diplomatic operation Vice President Pence sketched solicited collective international action to end the threat of nuclear war in east Asia. The U.S. will “marshal” global and regional economic and diplomatic power in order to “isolate” North Korea’s rogue regime and achieve “denuclearization.”

North Korea is the culprit and bears responsibility for the horrors that are and the horror that could be. However, China, pursuing its policy of strategic ambiguity, serves as Pyongyang’s key enabler.

Since China and Russia border North Korea, isolation is impossible without their cooperation. Complete economic isolation would require a naval blockade, which might get touchy. Could the Trump administration convince China to intercept blockade runners? Close American-Chinese cooperation in that tight degree might well secure termination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons quest. It would tell disgruntled North Korean generals that the world has changed and it’s time they terminated the Kim regime.

In April 2017, Team Trump suggested China would receive a favorable trade deal—and perhaps other unspecified considerations—if Beijing helped terminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Calling for a “denuclearized peninsula” told China that South Korea would not acquire nuclear weapons, and both the U.S. and South Korea would guarantee that condition. Should North Korea collapse and South Korea absorb it, the reunified Korea would not possess nukes.

Pence didn’t say it. However, a Chinese strategic artist might conclude that Team Trump’s art of the diplomatic deal would include guarantees that Japan wouldn’t acquire nukes, either.

***

At the Shangri-la Summit in Singapore in June 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made it clear the U.S. has vital interests in the Asian littoral. “The United States is a Pacific nation,” he said, “both in geography and outlook.”

The Asia-Pacific region is “a priority region” for Washington. He said the Trump administration intends to address regional issues through “military partnerships, robust investment and trade relationships, and close ties between the peoples of our countries.”

Then he addressed North Korea’s “clear intent” to acquire nuclear-armed missiles. China recently made a “renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization,” which made it a partner in ending North Korea’s threat. Denuclearizing the entire Korean peninsula is a Trump administration objective. China now seems to share that goal. Mattis told the conference “…We believe China will come to recognize North Korea as a strategic liability, not an asset.”

Speaking directly to China, Mattis said the U.S. would “engage China diplomatically and economically to ensure our relationship is beneficial.” That’s a nice carrot for Beijing.

But Mattis didn’t shy from confronting China’s South China Sea aggression. He declared that the 2016 arbitration court ruling that concluded China illegally seized Filipino territory “is binding” and serves as a diplomatic “starting point” to peacefully manage regional disputes. That’s careful, measured language.

As he finished, Mattis mentioned, as if in passing, that for the first time the U.S. would give Vietnam a retired U.S. Coast Guard cutter. That was a small but forceful stick waved at Beijing. In 1979 China and Vietnam fought a bloody border war—and China lost. China fears a U.S.-Vietnam alliance. Beijing’s misbehavior in the South China Sea has led Vietnam to seek a closer relationship with the U.S. Helping denuclearize North Korea would please Washington and possibly give China the diplomatic capital to forestall a complete U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement.

Finally, Mattis said America “remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide the defense articles necessary…” That’s a yuge stick.

Beijing says Taiwan is a breakaway province.

* * *

On September 3, 2017, North Korea tested a powerful nuclear device.

On September 23, Trump issued an executive order some analysts called declaration of economic war on North Korea.

They obviously hadn’t paid attention. Rex Tillerson said it was coming and that the Trump administration would exert “maximum pressure” on North Korea until the criminal state denuclearized.

That included psychological pressure on “Little Rocket Man.” Trump coined that nomme de insult in September, and Council on Foreign Relations vain goblins immediately furrowed their brows and knotted their knickers.

For those of us who’ve spent a lot of time in dangerous honky tonks, the bombast was a useful punch, and I said so in Observer.

“Trump’s nicknames, like Crooked Hillary and Rocket Man, are such damningly effective political caricatures they become psychological weapons.

Insulting a dictator’s ‘dignity’ is a potentially valuable psychological weapon. Dictators demonstrate invulnerability by silencing and suppressing dissent and opposition using physical intimidation and coercion, to include mass murder.

Kim’s inability to stop Trump’s taunts or top his taunts demonstrate a kind of vulnerability on Kim’s part. I repeat, a kind of vulnerability. But vulnerable dictators don’t remain in power, not for long. If there is a time to rattle Kim Jong Un, it’s now, before he gets nukes and ICBMs that can incinerate Los Angeles.”

*****

This is the gist of Trump versus North Korea, 2018 edition: The U.S. and its democratic allies, South Korea and Japan, are not demanding regime change. North Korea’s vicious regime can continue to run a Stalinist gulag and starve its wretched citizens. This is a concession to China. If the North Korean gulag remains, Communist China will retain an authoritarian and semi-dependent buffer prison state between its border and South Korea.

In exchange for regime existence (Kim dynasty pay off) and the buffer gulag (China pay off), the Kim regime must get rid of its nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons manufacturing capabilities.

The pay off to South Korea, Japan and the U.S. is that North Korea can no longer threaten Seoul, Tokyo, Honolulu and San Francisco with nuclear immolation.

Ah, the deadly fine print: Assuring denuclearization will require a very intrusive, long term, take your shorts off, take your shoes off, spread your glutes, check your hair for lice, open every cave, every bunker, every laboratory, every crevice verification regimen.

Call it maximum verification.

If North Korea balks at maximum verification, what happens next?

Trump said his administration would “go hard in either direction.”

That is a promise to sustain maximum pressure. War takes maximum pressure to a new level. No one should be surprised. After all, way back in 1999 Trump told Tim Russert that America had to terminate North Korea’s serious threat.

Austin Bay is a contributing editor at StrategyPage.com and adjunct professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

How Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Strategy Got North Korea to the Table