On Point: Special - The Trump Administration Pours North Korea a Power Cocktail: American Coordinated Coercive Diplomacy Operations to Denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, 2017 - 2018


by Austin Bay
February 26, 2019

This article is extracted from Chapter Two, NORTH KOREA: Frozen War, Hot Nukes, Maximum Pressure Cocktails in Austin Bay’s Cocktails from Hell: Five Complex Wars Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Bombardier Books, 2018) pp. 45-51. Copyright Austin Bay 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Whether a mixed drink or geo-strategic policy, a cocktail is a combination. DIMEFILCH is an acronym for some of the ingredients. The Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic elements of power (DIME). Financial, Intelligence, Legal (law enforcement), Cultural, and Humanitarian capabilities also mix in a “power cocktail.”

The "first brush" narrative in this section collects connected events and actions that occurred from March 2017 to March 2018. Overall, the operation represents a concerted effort to wage twenty-first-century "cocktail" warfare by employing and coordinating American power in pursuit of a geo-strategic goal: denuclearizing North Korea. But this is a slice of ongoing history. Subsequent events will determine the effectiveness of this particular multi-dimensional operation.

The Coercive Diplomacy narrative actually begins with Donald Trump’s October 24, 1999 Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert.

The interview is a historically illuminating flash forward to his administration’s 2017–2018 “de-nuclearizing” North Korea coercive diplomatic effort. It also adds convincing depth to the US narrative that “North Korea has gone too far.”

Based on administration statements made in 2017, “de-nuclearizing” means destroying the DPRK’s nukes and its long-range missile delivery systems. If coercive diplomacy does not produce this result, a war would, though with hideously destructive costs. In the 1999 interview, Trump summarizes the American government’s weak responses to North Korea’s slow but undeterred quest for nuclear weapons:

First I’d negotiate and be sure I could get the best deal possible.… The biggest problem this world has is nuclear proliferation. And we have a country out there in North Korea which is sort of wacko, 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 1999)

A narrative warfare gambit? Given the twentieth-century date, the statement was either bravado or a promise to act when and if. The Trump administration’s subsequent actions demonstrate Trump made a promise. In March 2017, Trump’s foreign policy began a coordinated attack on Kim Jong Un’s regime with the interim goals of disrupting Pyongyang’s political and military plans, exposing the regime’s grave weaknesses, and psychologically rattling its leader. The administration’s ultimate goal was to set conditions to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

On March 17, 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared, “The policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table.” He added 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. That same month Tillerson said the first steps to coerce de-nuclearization would be additional UN sanctions. Regarding China, Tillerson said, with diplomatic finesse, “No one issue defines the relationship between the US 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.”

Declaring North Korea an imminent threat was a dire warning that indicated kinetic military action could occur. However, for the present, American economic power would be the primary coercive instrument.

Tillerson’s rejection of strategic patience was 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.” Recall the Sunshine Policy and other “soft power” initiatives had failed, and this was evident during the Obama administration. (See Complexity 3, this chapter.)

In April 2017, Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea and assured the country, “We [Americans] are one hundred percent with you.” Pence said North Korea’s economic and political isolation is what the nuclearization is predicated upon. Complete economic isolation would deny North Korea all imports and stop its exports.

The coercive diplomatic operation that vice president Pence sketched solicited collective international economic and diplomatic action to end the threat of nuclear war in East Asia.

The Trump administration made it clear North Korea bore responsibility for the horrors that are and the horrors that could be. However, China, pursuing its policy of strategic ambiguity, has served as Pyongyang’s key enabler.

However, China and Russia border North Korea; isolation of the Kim regime is impossible without their cooperation. In April 2017, the Trump administration suggested that China would receive a favorable trade deal—and perhaps other unspecified considerations—if Beijing helped terminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. (See chapter three, The Dragon Revives, for a discussion of China’s economic goals and potential vulnerabilities.)

A de-nuclearized peninsula would signal to China that the US was guaranteeing that China would not confront a nuclear-armed South Korea. Should North Korea collapse and South Korea absorb it, the reunified Korea would not possess nukes.

Military power, however, remained in the mix. US, South Korean, and Japanese military exercises near North Korea began to intensify.

In June 2017, at the Shangri-La summit in Singapore, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the US had vital interests in the Asian littoral and that the Asia-Pacific region was “a priority region” for Washington. The Trump administration would 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. Mattis said he believed China would “come to recognize North Korea as a strategic liability, not an asset.” Mattis said the US would “engage China diplomatically and economically to ensure our relationship is beneficial.” That was a carrot. But Mattis didn’t shy away from confronting China’s South China Sea aggression. He declared that the 2016 arbitration court ruling concluding that China had illegally seized Filipino territory was binding and served as a diplomatic starting point to peacefully manage regional disputes. That was careful, measured language—in effect, “Let’s play by the rules and respect each other.”

As he finished, Mattis mentioned, as if in passing, that for the first time the US would give Vietnam a retired US 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 US-Vietnam alliance (see chapter three).

Finally, Mattis said America remained “committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide the defense articles necessary….”

That’s a stick – a military stick. Beijing says Taiwan is a breakaway province. Mattis’s remark echoed a phone call Trump made to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016, shortly after Trump’s election. China heard the echo.

September 3, 2017: North Korea tested a powerful nuclear device. On September 23, Trump replied with an executive order that informed analysts called a declaration of economic war on North Korea. The order supported Tillerson’s warning that the Trump administration would exert maximum pressure on North Korea until the criminal state de-nuclearized. Economic pressure followed diplomatic pressure.

The military pressure included US Air Force strategic bombers flying show-of-force missions around the peninsula, including a foray into international airspace over the East Sea off North Korea’s coast.

The pressure also included psychological (Information) pressure on “Little Rocket Man”—Kim Jong Un. Trump coined that nomme de insult in September, and it was a useful punch. Trump’s nicknames are such damningly effective caricatures that 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. Vulnerable dictators don’t remain in power, not for long.

On March 5, 2018, Kim Jong Un said he was willing to do something he had said he would never do: discuss de-nuclearizing his regime. He made no demand of South Korea and the US, other than that they meet to discuss the subject face-to-face. A day later, a South Korean delegation met with Kim in Pyongyang and reported that Kim himself had said he understood that South Korean and American joint military drills would continue. That was a huge concession. For decades, the Communist state’s propagandists have portrayed allied military exercises as preparations for invading the north. The dictatorship also agreed to suspend its provocative nuclear weapons tests and missile tests while talks continued.

June 2018: The March 2018 North Korean concession led to more discussions between South Korea and North Korea and meetings between President Moon and Kim Jong Un. The Trump administration said President Trump and Kim could discuss de-nuclearization face to face but there would be no US and allied concessions. Singapore would host their historic summit. As the summit approached, North Korea tried to alter the diplomatic ground rules. Trump canceled the summit—coercive diplomacy met with coercive diplomacy. North Korea asked the US to hold the Singapore summit. It took place on June 12, 2018. At the summit Trump dropped the “bad cop, good cop,” shook hands with the dictator, praised Kim for wisely choosing to talk, and assured him that he and his nation had a safe and wealthy future—as long as Kim followed through on his promise to completely, verifiably, and irreversibly de-nuclearize (CVID). During face-to-face discussions, Trump added another stroke of unpredictable diplomacy: he produced an iPad and showed Kim a four-minute video prepared by the White House. Slickly calculated to fascinate its target audience, the thirty-something movie-loving Kim, the video contained imagery and audio inspired by science fiction films, dramatic historical documentaries, razzle-dazzle adventure video games, and advertisements selling expensive high-tech products. The imagery and audio narration explicitly advocated making responsible decisions that positively shape the future by avoiding destructive nuclear war and promoting wealth. However, in the perspective of the deadly politics behind the summit, the video implicitly condemned Kim’s “Byongjin” policy. North Korea could not possess nuclear weapons and have wealth; nuclear weapons guaranteed North Korea’s ruin.

The video was a remarkable example of a psychological warfare diplomatic weapon that is simultaneously persuasive and coercive. In street lingo, the psychological cocktail sent this message: “Stay alive and get rich, kid.”

As the summit concluded, Kim indicated he would de-nuclearize and Trump responded with a goodwill gesture: South Korean-US military exercises would be suspended as long as North Korea pursued CVID. Like other allied gestures, the exercise suspension could be quickly reversed.

Time will tell if the Trump administration’s diplomatic operation de-nuclearizes North Korea and the world avoids a major war. As I finish this book, human history and the American effort both continue. Elements of a serviceable CVID deal have emerged. North Korean domestic media have mentioned the possibility—but the deal has yet to be made. Whatever its outcome, the coordinated coercive diplomatic operation as implemented March 2017 through March 2018 and into June 2018 with the Singapore summit was a remarkable example of a DIMEFILCH cocktail.

From Austin Bay’s Cocktails from Hell: Five Complex Wars Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Bombardier Books, 2018) pp. 45-51. Copyright Austin Bay 2018, All Rights Reserved.

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