The US and North Korea: Posturing v pragmatism

by Emrys Westacott

On September 19, Donald Trump spoke before the UN general assembly. Addressing the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, he said that the US "if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, . . . will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea." And of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he said, "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime." Download

There is nothing new about the US president affirming a commitment to defend itself and its allies. What is noteworthy about Trump's remarks is his cavalier talk of totally destroying another country, which implicitly suggests the use of nuclear weapons, and his deliberately insulting–as opposed to just criticizing–Kim Jong-un. He seems to enjoy getting down in the gutter with the North Korean leader, who responded in kind by calling Trump a "frightened dog," and a "mentally deranged dotard." Critics have noted that Trump's language is closer to what one expects of a strutting schoolyard bully than a national leader addressing an august assembly. And one could ask interesting questions about the psychological make-up of both men that leads them to speak the way they do. From a moral and political point of view, though, the only really important question regarding Trump's behavior is whether or not it is sensible. Is it a good idea to threaten and insult Kim Jong-un.

As a general rule, the best way to evaluate any action, including a speech act, is pragmatically: that is, by its likely effects. This is not always easy. Our predictions about the effects of an action are rarely certain, and they are often wrong. Moreover, even if we agree that one should think pragmatically, most of us find it hard to stick to this resolve. How many parents have nagged their teenage kids even though they know that such nagging will probably be counterproductive? How many of us have gone ahead and made an unnecessary critical comment to a partner that we know is likely to spark an unpleasant and unproductive row? And if one happens to be an ignorant, impulsive, narcissist, the self-restraint required in acting pragmatically is probably out of reach. Which is worrying when one considers how high the stakes are in the verbal cock fight between Trump and Jong-un.

There can be various motives behind issuing a threat. You could be signaling something to a third party (e.g. that you are a dangerous enemy, or a loyal friend). Or you could be looking to bolster your own confidence. But insofar as you are thinking about the party you are threatening, a threat is usually intended to have one of two consequences.

1. Cause a conflict through provocation.

2. Forestall a conflict by instilling fear.

Every reasonable person agrees that a war between the US and North Korea would be catastrophic. It could very easily and quickly lead to millions of deaths in both North and South Korea. Even if one is callous enough to discount the consequences to North Koreans, the proximity of Seoul to the border, with a population in the greater metropolitan area of 24 million, means that North Korea could almost certainly wreak havoc even if it only used conventional weapons.

So a threat that risks provoking a conflict is horribly irresponsible. Threatening Kim Jong-un is thus only sensible if it makes war less likely by instilling fear. Is it likely to do this? We don't know. To know how the recipient of a threat will react, you have to understand that person's mindset. But Kim Jong-un's mind is fairly opaque, at least to most Western observers.

In the absence of good information about what Kim Jong-un is really thinking, one naturally falls back on general principles that supposedly describe human nature, and therefore apply to him just as they apply to us all. Most people, it is said, are rational and self-interested; therefore, they won't normally act in ways that is wildly opposed to their own self-interest. And the same can reasonably be assumed of Kim Jong-un. But can it? The problem here is that the inference just drawn is invalid. From the fact that people are rational and self-interested, all that follows is that they won't usually act in ways that they perceive to be against their own interests. If their perceptions are mistaken, they may very well accidentally screw themselves over. So to predict how Jong-un will react to Trump's threats, we need to know not what will actually benefit him, but what he thinks will. Which brings us back to the opacity problem.

Dictator's minds are often hard to fathom because their view of the world is likely to be somewhat distorted. There are several reasons for this.

· They tend to be arrogant and hubristic, with an exaggerated sense of their own ability and power. (Think of Hitler invading the Soviet Union in June 1941 and six months later declaring war on the US.)

· They are often suspicious going on paranoid, so they don't trust good information. (Think of Stalin in 1941 ignoring all those who told him that Hitler was about to attack.)

· They are typically surrounded by sycophants who tell them only what it is assumed they want to hear.

These factors also explain why dictators often fail so spectacularly to do what would best serve their own interests. It's common for them to be portrayed, even by people who loathe them, as fiendishly shrewd and cunning. But this shrewdness is often quite narrow in scope. Plato got this right over two thousand years ago in the Republic. Tyrants, he argued, are pitiable rather than enviable. They think they know what is in their interest, but they don't.

Take Saddam Hussein, for example. He could have forestalled the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. But believing, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that there would be no invasion, he chose not to quash once and for all reports that he had weapons of mass destruction. By the end of the year, his sons were dead and he was in prison awaiting trial and eventual execution.

Or consider the Syrian dicatator Bashar al-Assad. Between 2000, when he assumed power, and 2010, he presided over a relatively stable country. But his brutal treatment of dissidents and his intransigent resistance to reform eventually led to a civil war which since 2011 has killed over 400,000 people, rendered millions homeless, and caused over five million people to flee the country, much of which now lies in ruins. Assad may be indifferent to the fate of ordinary Syrians, but his life and reputation would surely be much better had he pursued policies that didn't lead to this national disaster.

So one can't be certain that Kim Jong-un will only ever do what is (as opposed to what he believes to be) in his rational self-interest. For that reason, Trumps childlike posturing and sabre rattling are fantastically irresponsible. The uncontroversial bedrock principle that should underlie and inform US policy is that war would be catastrophic. Just about anything would be preferable. With respect to US foreign policy, therefore, war would represent an absolute failure. But it is not clear that Trump grasps this. A recent tweet read: "Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer! The casualness of this reference to people not being around–that is, to them and countless others being wiped out through military action–is numbing.

On another occasion, Trump declared that when it comes to North Korea, "talking is not the answer." That is as wrong as it gets. The only acceptable long term future is one in which the parties involved sit down and negotiate. Instead of offering deliberately provocative threats and insults, the US should do the following:

· State clearly that while they will always defend themselves and their allies, the US will not initiate any military action against North Korea.

· Express a desire for an improved relationship between the US and North Korea, with the long-term goal of full diplomatic relations.

· Propose, and work hard to achieve, both one-on-one talks between the US and North Korea, and multilateral talks involving South Korea, China, Japan and Russia to reduce military tension on the Korean peninsular.

· Propose similar talks to explore the development of economic activity linking North Korea and other countries.

Some people will object that these proposals amount to rewarding North Korea's "bad" behavior. They argue instead for economic sanctions rather than talks, preferring sticks to carrots. It is possible they are right. Yet in the history of international relations, economic sanctions have rarely achieved their purpose. More importantly, in this case it is quite possible that tighter economic sanctions could make things worse–that is, make war more likely if they make the North Korean government feel weaker and more desperate. What matters isn't what someone "deserves," but what works. To say it again, when the stakes are so high, pragmatism should be the order of the day.