Korean Negotiations: A Product of Trump’s Incompetence?

Trump’s “Madman Strategy” toward North Korea is one of his many ill-advised and dangerous foreign policy moves. But unlike others, it has backfired in a way that has improved the stability of the Korean peninsula.

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By Michael Hu

Former U.S. presidents have taken ineffective approaches to diplomacy with North Korea, letting it grow its nuclear arsenal and become increasingly erratic and hostile. When Donald Trump was elected president, he seemed to exacerbate relations with North Korea, threatening the country with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued its nuclear testing. Indeed, it appeared as if Trump was worsening the situation. That is, until early 2018.

In February, the Winter Olympics were hosted in South Korea, and North Korean athletes (as well as Kim Jong-un’s sister) attended in a diplomatic move. Since then, the prospect of negotiations between the North and South has dramatically increased and recently climaxed in the Panmunjom Declaration on April 27, where both nations pledged to work on ending the Korean War, and even hinted at a North Korean denuclearization and removal of some of the over 20,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. For the first time ever, a North Korean Supreme Leader and American President are scheduled to meet and discuss possible compromises.

With so much progress being made in such little time (and after decades of standoff and disagreement), many people believe Donald Trump is to account for the new openness to negotiation. His Madman Strategy of threatening mutually assured destruction seems to have paid off, with Kim Jong-un backing down and engaging in talks with Moon Jae-in.

But in reality, the Madman Strategy hasn’t succeeded. Counterintuitively, its failure has backfired to improve Korean relations—albeit at the cost of the U.S.’s international standing.

Since his inauguration, Trump has advocated for a unilateral policy of “America First.” In less than a year, he has backed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), left the Paris Climate Agreement, and alienated the U.S. from other nations with his fiery rhetoric. In addition to his isolationist policy moves, Trump has become known for making empty threats—many of which he contradicts just months after making. An example of this is Trump’s recent attempt at renegotiating the U.S. into the TPP, which just months earlier he had said was a bad deal that needed better negotiation.

The Madman Strategy is no different. The strategy is one big bluff, a bluff that North and South Korea can see through. Trump’s threats are irrational and unlikely to happen, and he has contradicted them by suggesting the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea and by calling for peaceful negotiations. This has decreased Trump’s authority and reliability and made him seem uneducated. In this sense, Trump has strayed from past U.S. Presidents by not having consistent policy, but merely a set of straggling ideas. A lack of strong foreign policy in the Koreas has decreased Trump’s political influence in the region, and South Korea, Japan, and China have lost trust in American leadership. In the absence of a strong U.S. influence, North and South Korea have taken negotiations into their own hands, and this has proven remarkably successful.

Both Koreas have always been incentivized to end the Korean War. South Korea is threatened by the North’s nuclear arsenal, and North Korea is endangered by U.S. nuclear power and a lack of resources to steadily maintain its dictatorship. There are also benefits from mutual cooperation, which could improve the overall economy and could bring a general stability to the region. Now that the Koreas can openly negotiate terms to a future agreement, they are more likely to reach a peace or even gradual denuclearization. In just the past few days they have set their clocks to the same time zone, a move that couldn’t have even been imagined a few months ago.

The world should be very optimistic about the recent Korean negotiations, but should also be wary of the conditions that caused them: a lack of international trust in U.S. leadership and influence. If Trump continues his America-first, non-interventionist strategy, the U.S. may reach a point where other powers such as China are able to gain a bigger foothold in international relations. China has already established the One Belt One Road Initiative, which recreates the Silk Road in an attempt to rebuild the Chinese economy and influence throughout Asia and the Middle East. If more countries lose faith in U.S. foreign policy, China is more likely to gain influence, which will break down U.S. hegemony.

The backfiring of the Madman Strategy has proved successful, but Trump will have to toe the line between interventionism and non-interventionism to maintain both trust in the U.S. and a global political equilibrium.