On CNN yesterday, Jake Tapper described President Trump’s recent behavior — including the President’s tweet about having a bigger nuclear “button” than North Korea — as abnormal and unstable. In other words, crazy.
One folksy definition of “crazy” is that it involves trying over and over again a solution that has never worked while hoping it works next time. President Trump is doing something closer to the opposite of that. He’s doing something new, both strategically and verbally. To be fair, new things can be crazy too. But usually only if they don’t work. When a new and unexpected thing works out well, we call it genius. And that begs the question: Is President Trump’s approach to North Korea working?
We’re seeing economic sanctions on North Korea that have the support of the UN Security Council. That part is working, and it took diplomatic skill to make it happen.
But we also see satellite images of tankers smuggling oil into North Korea. The sanctions looked as if they were not effective until South Korea detained two tankers involved in smuggling oil to North Korea. Grabbing two tankers doesn’t do much in terms of limiting supply, but it does dramatically change the perceived economics of being a smuggler. And if grabbing two tankers doesn’t get the message across, South Korea can keep detaining tankers until the economics do change. North Korea would be willing to take big risks to break the sanctions, but the shipping companies on which they depend will not. Shipping companies will only participate in wrongdoing when they are confident they won’t get caught. That calculation changed when South Korea detained two tankers.
I told you months ago that the United States was going to war with corporations that trade with North Korea. We’re seeing that with the detained tankers. Whoever owns them is bleeding cash while they sit unused. And I speculate that our intelligence services are making life difficult for other CEOs and corporations involved in violating the economic sanctions. President Trump knows he doesn’t need to stop all of the smuggling and cheating — he only needs to increase the risk until it is uneconomical for the companies involved. We’re heading in that direction.
For the first time I can recall, time is on our side with North Korea. Every passing day sees North Korea’s economy shrinking while South Korea and America thrive. We’re effectively already at war and winning hard. The longer North Korea waits to get serious about negotiating, the weaker their hand.
A recent statement out of North Korea said, in effect, that they need their nuclear weapons as a deterrent because the United States is performing war games along its border. The way I interpret North Korea’s statement is that they are getting flexible. This is the first time I’ve heard North Korea speak of their nukes as conditional on what we do. In other words, they are open to denuclearizing if we reduce their perceived military risk. They haven’t said that directly. But that’s how I read it.
North Korea recently made friendly gestures toward South Korea, offering to participate in the upcoming Olympics and opening cross-border communications for the first time in a year. The trend we are seeing is that the tougher the sanctions and rhetoric from the United States, the more flexible North Korea is becoming.
But let’s talk about President Trump’s latest tweet about North Korea. Here is the text:
“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Here we see President Trump “pacing” (or matching) the hyperbolic rhetoric of Kim Jung Un. The two leaders are trash-talking each other like sports rivals. But what is missed in the hysterics over wording is that President Trump and Kim Jung Un are negotiating personally, albeit in public. And I think it is safe to say both players know they are being over-the-top with their trash-talk. The odds of a nuclear miscalculation based on anything said so far is effectively zero. And if the rhetoric ratchets up to a new level of hyperbole, I would still see no additional risk. President Trump and Kim Jong Un have demonstrated they know the difference between trash-talk and action.
The Persuasion Filter says this public trash-talking probably lowers our risk of a nuclear accident. If you don’t share the kind of personality we are seeing displayed by both leaders, you might miss the biggest variable in play here. What I see is two unconventional leaders already in conversation, getting a feel for the other, and on some level enjoying the exchange. You know President Trump loves this sort of verbal battle, and he’s good at it. Now keep in mind that North Korea is a tiny country that would normally be below America’s radar. But Kim Jong Un has the full attention of the President of the United States and is trash-talking with him in public. I have to think he enjoys the verbal jousting on some level, same as President Trump.
So while it might look to many observers as two crazy leaders heading for a nuclear showdown, to me it looks like two colorful characters who probably have a weird kind of respect for each other. Let me put it another way. Which of these two situations carries a greater risk of accidental nuclear war?
- Two nuclear foes who have no communication and are trying to interpret the actions of the other.
- Two nuclear foes trash-talking each other (with humor) in front of the world
I’ll take option two every time. When Kim Jong Un and President Trump are trash-talking in public with hyperbolic humor, they’re talking. The only risk is that one of them doesn’t understand the other is being over-the-top for effect. And I see no real risk of that. They both know what they are getting with the other.
I’d be worried if I saw Kim Jong Un yammering about the latest round of economic sanctions being an act of war. But instead he’s talking of participating in the Olympics in South Korea. That sounds like a leader who is trying to avoid war.
If you are a literal type of person who doesn’t recognize hyperbole or humor, I can see how this situation looks scary. But I promise you neither leader has a physical “button” on his desk, of any size, to launch a nuclear attack. And I feel confident that both leaders understand humor and hyperbole when they see it.
My view on all of this is that we are closer than we have ever been to a peace deal that results in a non-nuclear North Korea. Everything I see suggests President Trump is successfully “setting the table,” as he likes to say, for productive talks. Can the hundred-year plan for reunification be far away?
You might like my book, Win Bigly, because the alternative is to believe you are about to die in a nuclear blast.