Back in May, I argued that Donald Trump’s tactic toward North Korea would be to pretend he didn’t hear what was happening as long as he could. I call the tactic “LALALALALA I can’t hear you” and tweet that with news that Trump is keeping it going.
It’s a dangerous tactic, and a number of my national security colleagues have been raising concerns about it. Kim Jong Un has set a deadline of the end of the year for…something. He hasn’t said exactly what, but he has been testing missiles, and his officials have been making unfriendly statements. Kim has said that he is not waiting for the end of the year and has a “Christmas present” for Trump.
Trump’s response so far: LALALALALA and a couple of “Rocket man” tweets. He continues to say that his good friend Kim would not violate the “strong deal” they agreed on in Singapore.
The Singapore statement commits neither North Korea nor the United States to any actions. At most, it might be said to be a statement of principles. And it contains the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which, to North Korea, means a vague future in which the United States leaves South Korea so that the North feels safe enough to give up its nuclear weapons. Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, use the phrase to mean that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons before they will even discuss lifting sanctions.
The phrase has historically been used in its North Korean meaning, so they have the better of that argument.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been threatening the South Korean government. In late November, he demanded that South Korea pay five times what it has been for the presence of American troops in that country. In response, South Korea threatened to end intelligence cooperation with the United States and Japan, but backed away from that threat. Although Trump has focused more on his impeachment since then, his demand for more money from South Korea is consistent with his misunderstandings of how alliances work and their benefits to the United States. If he continues to insist on that payment, he will lessen his leverage for negotiating with North Korea.
North Korea has been testing missiles throughout the year. They recently did an engine test that could be for an ICBM that could reach the United States or for a satellite launch. The test was different in a number of ways from earlier tests, but satellite photos of the site don’t contain enough information to fully diagnose it.
All these threads could dovetail in the next few weeks. The negotiations with North Korea are going nowhere, although Special Envoy Stephen Biegun has optimistically suggested he’s ready to meet. North Korea has said that that time has passed. They are getting ready for what they hope will be an impressive weapons test, more likely missile than nuclear.
A further complication has just appeared. China and Russia have drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution that proposes that the Security Council lift sanctions on North Korean exports of seafood and textiles. It also proposes lifting the ban on North Korean workers abroad and would terminate a 2017 requirement that all North Korean workers be repatriated by next week. If the resolution goes to a vote, it will put the US in a difficult position. If the US vetoes, we are the bad guys. If we allow it through, the result is worse than the offer Trump refused at Hanoi.
Trump and Pompeo have shown no sign of movement from the position that North Korea must disarm itself of its nuclear weapons before they will even talk. What Biegun has said so far does not contradict that.
How long can Trump continue with LALALALALA I can’t hear you? We may find out in the next two weeks.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner