Trump and the Koreas: What to expect from calculated irrationaliy
Donald Trump’s tumultuous debut into international relations has encouraged debate around his strategic coherence.
How much of his actions originate from spur-of-the-moment decisions? Does Donald Trump adhere to a premeditated grand strategy? And how will this shape his relationship with North and South Korea?
Trump and Kim Jong-un: A parallel discussion of credibility and risks
Setting excessively high expectations through rash demands – and then adjusting to a favorable outcome through subsequent “concessions” – is a common business negotiation technique, in which President Trump is an expert. This represents one possible way to interpret President Trump’s line of foreign policy. Examples include the US-Mexico border wall, Trump’s stance on the One China policy, as well as his recent altercation with the Australian Prime Minister on refugee transfers to the US. This interpretation rests on the assumption that the president will follow up with subsequent adjustments.
A significant portion of analysis on President Trump’s foreign policy decisions suggest that he is influenced by his personality, making it inherently difficult to predict. President Trump’s personality has been described as “brash, unpredictable, contradictory and thin-skinned,” by Chatham House with others – including US Senators – echoing similar assessments like “wildly improvisational” and “erratic.”
Between this dichotomous divide, exists a third camp, which attempts to make sense of both interpretations through ‘rational irrationality,’ or more colloquially called the “madman strategy.” This interpretation proposes that President Trump’s chaotic foreign policy is a calculated move to break the “can he do that” mentality. If President Trump can credibly make irrational demands and threats, then more concessions will extracted from rivals.
A different kind of “yes, we can.” President Trump is neither the first leader nor the first US President to have analysts apply the madman strategy interpretation. The most famous precedent is Richard Nixon, whose nuclear posturing vis-à-vis with the Soviet Union provided a powerful empirical grounding for the madman theory.
More relevant to current political risk is the fact that the exact same debate – rational versus irrational versus the madman theory – revolves around Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. Rationality dictates that Kim Jong-un not initiate a nuclear strike against the American nuclear umbrella in the absence of nuclear and/or existential threats. Yet, North Korea continues to rattle its nuclear saber to extract economic concessions, such as lifting sanctions and a wide range of aid.
Richard Nixon aside, what makes the Trump-Kim connection risky is because the audience is forced to maintain a credible doubt that both individuals are in fact irrational. This is not a welcoming development, especially with the Korean Peninsula, where stock markets are directly impacted by the news of North Korean aggression.
South Korean presidential elections: A focused application
Increased uncertainty between North Korea and the US is bound to affect commerce and politics in the region, especially after former President Obama’s passive “strategic patience” policy. While each individual area merits its own analysis, a concerning area is South Korea, which faces a potential presidential election before summer 2017.
President Park is currently suspended from duty by the National Parliament; she will be formally removed from office if the South Korean Constitutional Court rules in favor of impeachment. In this case, Article 68 of the South Korean constitution obligates the state to elect a new president within 60 days.
The South Korean presidential term is five years for one term. This means that the new South Korean president will be President Trump’s partner on the Korean Peninsula. The catch for President Trump is that this new president will likely come from the liberal camp, the side that has traditionally advocated for more military and political independence from the US.
In this context, President Trump’s madman strategy increases uncertainty regarding the extent and strength of American commitment on the Korean Peninsula. The Trump administration has issued verbal promises of retribution against North Korea, following the president’s campaign-trail criticism of former President Obama’s policy towards North Korea.
While the madman strategy allows the Trump administration an upper hand in negotiations with North Korea, it leaves South Korea in the dark. This augments existing fears in South Korea with regards to Trump’s campaign statements on the possible retraction of US forces from South Korea and Japan, a move that North Korea welcomes, which will make the South Korean government pay more for American protection.
Such failures will increase the likelihood of a liberal presidency in South Korea, as well as further empower the new South Korean leader to seek military autonomy from the US. To be sure, one can optimistically expect figures like Moon Jae-In or Ahn Hee-Jung, the two individuals leading national polls, to cooperate effectively with Trump.
However, their views on North Korea diverge significantly as of now from those of Trump. Both candidates consistently advertise and advocate their ties to former President and the late Noh Moo-Hyun, who was a staunch champion of the Sunshine Policy. Knowing this, North Korea is also likely to try its best to provoke President Trump to take advantage of South Korean aid.
Sunshine Policy or not, there is no doubt that North Korea must be met with cooperation from its surrounding regional players and the US. Cooperation can come in the form of normalized relations between the US and North Korea, or the indirect effects of that interaction on the South Korean elections.
As the Trump administration lays down more plans for North Korea, audiences should take into account how commitments, especially failure to follow up, are affecting its North and South Korean audiences.