National Security

President Trump’s Diplomacy Toward North Korea

As the world watches President Trump on his tour of Asia, the big question is what effect his trip will have on the North Korean madman trying to drive the world to the brink of nuclear war.  News analysts speak as if Trump’s rhetoric means that he is incapable of diplomacy, and already are blaming him for Kim Jong-un’s irrational aggression. President Obama’s weakness in the face of foreign aggression, which he described archly as quiet diplomacy, gave diplomacy a bad name, encouraging caricatures of effete cookie pushers failing to solve a problem better suited to the skills of manly generals.

But this dualistic analysis misses the reality. There is an entire spectrum of tools available to President Trump – or any American president, that ranges all the way from doing nothing, to a full nuclear exchange. General Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian commander and military theorist, described this in his most-quoted statement, “war is a continuation of politics [i.e., diplomacy] by other means.”

Diplomacy: not just for striped pants

An examination of those “other means” reveals far more than sweet talk and cocktail parties. Diplomacy itself is a combination of persuasion, threats, warnings, deals, and exchanges of views. The popular view of diplomatic communication is that it is sophisticated, nuanced, and above all polite. However, the most important element of diplomatic communication is clarity. President Trump made his position very clear when he promised “fire and fury” if Kim doesn’t stop his nuclear missile project. That was diplomacy, making sure that Kim understands clearly the consequences of his continued actions.

The most important element of diplomatic communication is clarity.

An example of a more subtle public diplomacy comes in a report about new weapons developed by the Air Force and the Sandia national energy lab. The USAF Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), developed by Boeing’s Phantom Works, uses high power microwaves (HPM) to destroy electronic hardware. It can be deployed with pinpoint accuracy to render all hardware inoperable in a given area such as a radar array, command post, or a launch facility.  It can destroy the electronic guidance system of an ICBM, or the detonation system of its warhead, and even destroy every bit of electronic hardware in a command bunker buried deep within a mountain.

Meanwhile, Sandia National Laboratories has developed nanobots resembling insects, which can be deployed to deliver a fatal dose of toxin to Kim Jong-un. Although current U.S. policy forbids the assassination of foreign leaders, that policy was established by an executive order from President Gerald Ford, and could be undone by an executive order from President Trump.  Not all executive orders are made public, of course, so it is possible that Trump already has changed our policy, but this is a topic best reserved for a separate article.

Both of these weapons systems were developed under the utmost secrecy, but their existence was made known earlier this year.  The decision to release that information was a quiet stroke of public diplomacy.  It is a warning to Kim that he is not safe inside his bunkers, and that if he issues a command for a nuclear strike, his missiles will fail.  It is yet another instance of the attempt to prevent war by making clear our capability to win it.

In a similar vein, the U.S. Navy has sent three carrier groups to the East Sea (the Sea of Japan), and over the weekend released aerial footage of them.  The capacity of a single carrier group to wage war is well known, and having three carrier groups all focused on a single country is a clear sign that our military is prepared for war.  That too is public diplomacy, a show of force and demonstration of capability to back up the messages President Trump delivers to our allies and North Korea’s.

The rest of the American diplomatic maneuvers are less public.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed last summer that he has an open line of communication to North Korea, but quite properly did not disclose the content of the communications.  Although President Trump tweeted in October that Tillerson was “wasting his time,” Tillerson later told CNN’s “State of the Union” program that “Those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.”

The most important diplomatic exchanges regarding North Korea, however, take place not with Pyongyang, but with Moscow and Beijing.  Kim is suddenly able to launch missiles now because it is in the interest of China and Russia that the American President devote his attention to solving the problem of Pyongyang.  Expect to see continued conversations with Russia and China, and don’t be surprised if deals are struck with them, in advance of a brokered solution to the problem of Pyongyang.  And don’t be misled by public posturing between Trump and Kim: diplomacy will not fail until every avenue has been exhausted with Kim’s patrons.

Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department. He is a director at the Richard Richards Foundation.

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