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[Robert Fouser] Donald Trump’s North Korea strategy

Speeches to the United Nations General Assembly are usually diplomatic, but not this year. US President Donald Trump took the opportunity this year to lash out at North Korea by threatening to “totally destroy” it and referring to its leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man.” Kim responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” and holding an anti-American rally in Pyongyang. The recent round of insults has raised tensions and questions about what each man is trying to achieve.

The key to understanding the current situation is to figure what strategy, if any, each man is following. To do that, we must first figure out how each man thinks. Donald Trump is about 40 years older than Kim Jong-un and we know far more about him. Trump first came into the public eye in the early 1980s and has left a long trail of evidence to sift through. Kim rose to power quickly after his father Kim Jong-il chose him as his successor. North Korea is one of the most secretive nations in world, making it difficult to get a full picture of who he is.

To understand Trump, I recently read “The Art of the Deal,” his first and most noted book. Published in 1987, the book details Trump’s rise in the world of New York real estate and offers insight into his thinking. The overwhelming conclusion from the book is that Trump is most motivated by the game and that he drives very hard to win. In the world of real estate, making deals for financial gain is the game, so Trump takes money very seriously.

The book is full of details about Trump’s major real estate deals from the 1970s to the mid-1980s. Like many successful business people, Trump choses his deals based on the opportunities that they offer. He likes deals that offer financial profit and that contribute to brand development. This explains why he built the Trump Tower in a high-profile spot on Fifth Avenue in New York. It attracted attention and helped him build his brand.

In making deals, Trump likes leverage. He wrote, “The only way you’re going to make the deal you want, is if you’re coming from a position of strength and can convince the other side that you have something they need.” He also considers risk in a deal: “Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself.”

Trump’s tweets and all of his crude and impulsive statements create anxiety because they run counter to expectations of a US president. They also run counter to common sense. Why exacerbate tensions with inflammatory remarks and tweets? Why create more anxiety that could have harmful repercussions? The list of questions is long.

Looking at Trump as a deal maker who likes to win, however, helps answer some of these questions. Trump has decided that North Korea is a deal worth making. If Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama couldn’t deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, then Trump wants to be the one to do so. This would distinguish him from his predecessors and enhance his brand as a problem solver.

To deal with North Korea, Trump wants leverage, which explains why his actions have focused on restricting the flow of money into North Korea. He knows that money motivates people and that leaders use money to buy loyalty. By some estimates, North Korea spends about a third of its gross domestic product on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Reducing the flow of money into North Korea will make it difficult to continue the program.

For all his tough talk, Trump knows that a war is too risky because of the potential for loss of life in Seoul. He doesn’t want to become another George W. Bush by getting the US into a bloody war.

All of this means that the likelihood of a US first strike on North Korea is very low. The important question, then, is how Kim will react if the flow of money into North Korea falls sharply. Kim knows that a first strike will result in his destruction, so there is no incentive to do so. He is ruthless and has a huge ego, but he is not suicidal and wants to protect his kingdom.

The current tensions are serious, but the threat of war remains low. If Trump’s search for leverage through money works, then Kim will make his way to the negotiating table. If not, then Trump will settle for containment and think about the long game.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.