Trump, Nixon, and Gambling on the Korean Peninsula

This essay fragment was written in December 2016, and has not previously been published.

If you’re a gambler, the odds are good that Donald Trump will face a North Korea crisis at some point in his first year in office. In spite of being hit with a wall of UN sanctions, Treasury Department actions, US Executive Orders, and a major flood, North Korea managed to test ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons galore in 2016. Such tests are invariably heralded by Kim Jong-un’s propaganda apparatus as a personal triumph for the young leader, and as outright intimidation of the United States, North Korea’s existential foe since the early Cold War. While in the past such tests and propaganda from Pyongyang might have been regarded as mere “temper tantrums or political demonstrations,” the fact remains that the North Korean nuclear force is growing in size and standardization, and is well on its way to threatening the United States.

Donald Trump is clearly a bit of a gambler without particularly anchored, much less nuanced, views of the North Korean nuclear program. His meeting with President Obama on November 10 indicated that denuclearization does not appear to be a problem to which he has given much thought. So how well will these instincts serve him in facing the North Korean nuclear issue? The tendency to take stagnant or stable situations and upend them — “he is a disruptor,” you will often hear — may ultimately come into play in dealing with North Korea.

One gamble, his threat to force the South Koreans to pay for the stationing of 28,500 US troops on the peninsula, is music to Pyongyang’s ears, while another, his suggestion that South Korea acquire its own nuclear deterrent, is not.

Trump would be no means be exceptional in having to face down the North Koreans early in his first term. In 1969 alone, Richard Nixon had to deal with negotiating a number of US hostages in North Korea, a number of provocations along the Demilitarized Zone, and, after less than three months in office, the shooting down of a US surveillance craft by the North Koreans that killed 31 servicemen. Although Nixon was not an enthusiastic consumer of Presidential Daily Briefings by the CIA, those documents are full of Korean problems.

In April 1969, less than three months into his first term, Richard Nixon was informed that a US reconnaissance aircraft had been shot down by North Korean fighters. His Presidential Daily Briefing informed him that fate of the 31 crew members was unknown, but in fact they were all dead. Embroiled in a war in Vietnam and facing domestic dissent, Nixon was in no position to retaliate against North Korea — but the North Koreans had forced their way to the top of the national agenda.  

Image: H.R. Haldeman confers with President Richard Nixon in 1972; via US National Archives and Records Administration. 

 

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