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One Term of 'Maximum Pressure' on North Korea
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One Term of ‘Maximum Pressure’ on North Korea

A new book from H.R. McMaster offers a look back at Trump's attempted containment and wooing of Kim Jong-un.

As President Donald Trump prepared to take office nearly four years ago, his predecessor had a warning. President Barack Obama advised Trump that North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs would be the most pressing danger he would face. At a military parade in Pyongyang earlier this month the North Koreans unveiled what CNN described as the “world’s largest liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile.” It was a worrisome reminder that the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remains intact and, in some respects, has grown since Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

Obama’s warning did not go unheeded. The Trump administration attempted to convince Kim Jong-un, a murderous tyrant, to give up his nuclear aspirations. But that effort, like previous American initiatives, has clearly failed. Why? The simplest answer may be that there is nothing the U.S. or its allies can do to dissuade Kim. Still, it is worth revisiting the story of the past four years to understand what exactly the Trump administration tried to do. 

For that explanation, we turn to Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, a new book by Lieutenant General (ret.) H.R. McMaster. Full disclosure: McMaster is Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the same think tank that employs me. And I’ve advised McMaster, who cited my work on jihadism in Battlegrounds

McMaster took over as Trump’s National Security Advisor in February 2017, after his predecessor, Gen. Michael Flynn, was ousted just weeks into the new administration. From the outset, McMaster had to navigate turbulent political seas. He explains how rising isolationist sentiment, especially throughout Trump’s political base, complicated his job. In 2016, for instance, the Obama administration reached an agreement with the government of South Korea to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. This “seemed like a logical response,” McMaster writes, to the provocative tests performed by Pyongyang, which threatened South Koreans and Americans living in or stationed on the Korean Peninsula. 

But by mid-2017, the THAAD deployment was becoming controversial not only among Trump’s supporters, but also in South Korea, where anti-Americanism has gained significant traction. McMaster had to neutralize a potential “perfect storm” from brewing “between Donald Trump’s and Moon Jae-in’s political bases.” (Moon became President of South Korea in 2017.) 

“THAAD was contentious with President Trump and his political base because of its cost and the perception that it was another case of the United States defending a faraway place at American taxpayers’ expense,” McMaster writes. “Skeptics of U.S. military presence overseas did not care that the system was wholly owned and operated by the U.S. Army, nor that it was a cheaper missile defense solution than the alternative of multiple Patriot air defense batteries.” These critics simply doubted that “countries like South Korea could not afford their own defenses.” 

Meanwhile, some South Koreans came to view the missiles as an unnecessary provocation, resenting the fact that the Chinese had sanctioned their country for accepting the THAAD deployment. Beijing portrayed the THAAD system as part of a conspiracy aimed in its direction.

Moon’s government waffled on the deployment of additional THAAD missiles in 2017, claiming that an environmental assessment was needed before they could be accepted. McMaster knew that his boss, a New York real estate developer who had dealt with such stall tactics in the past, would view this as an affront, an indication that the South Koreans did not truly appreciate American assistance and were weak in the face of Chinese pressure. 

During a cordial dinner with South Korean Ambassador Chung Eui-yong, McMaster drew up a plan on a napkin, telling his foreign counterpart that there was room for the THAAD missiles and the environmental impact study could wait until after the defensive weapons had arrived. Moon ultimately accepted McMaster’s napkin proposal and a potential crisis in relations was averted—even if Trump didn’t really approve. “I gladly received Trump’s ire for South Korea’s not paying for a missile system our army owned and our soldiers operated,” McMaster writes.   

The Trump administration’s goal was to shift away from Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” to a more coercive campaign known as “maximum pressure.” The former policy was based on the idea that the U.S. would ignore North Korea’s periodic provocations, which the regime used to extract concessions and weak agreements. The Obama team was willing to wait until the Kim tyranny demonstrated it was truly interested in negotiations. As the title implies, the latter strategy of “maximum pressure” was intended to place Pyongyang under so much economic and diplomatic duress that Kim would choose to forego his nuclear aspirations in return for relief.  

According to McMaster, the North Korean regime “had never felt diplomatic, economic, financial, or military pressure sufficient to convince its leaders that denuclearization was in their interests.” It is important to keep in mind that “maximum pressure” did not equal regime change. The American officials responsible for the strategy did not think it was likely that the Kim regime would “collapse” or “reform.” Instead, the U.S. policy was aimed squarely at convincing North Korea to denuclearize. 

Too often, policy wonks and officials pretend that they have all the answers, and that their preferred policies are necessarily superior to alternatives. But the world is a messy, complex place. Sometimes there are no good or easy answers, and events have to dictate one’s actions. With refreshing candor, McMaster recognizes that “maximum pressure” was a test—and hardly a sure thing.  

“We were testing a thesis that the United States and other nations could force Kim Jong-un to envision a future in which he continued to rule in an increasingly prosperous North, and thus conclude that he and his regime were safer without nuclear weapons than they were with them,” McMaster writes. 

To test the “maximum pressure” hypothesis, McMaster and the National Security Council would have to get everyone on the same page—including foreign allies, all relevant parts of the executive branch and, ultimately, their celebrity boss. While they made headway in this regard, the pressure on Kim never truly hit a 10 out of 10. Ambassador Nikki Haley, America’s permanent representative to the United Nations at the time, “masterfully negotiated four new UN Security Council resolutions that helped place significant economic pressure on North Korea.” The U.S. government “redoubled efforts” to enforce these and other prior sanctions and also to “disrupt North Korea’s organized crime and cybercrime activities,” McMaster writes. But the sanctions were never “fully enforced” and many of Kim’s illicit sources of cash remained untouched. For instance, North Korean guest workers (the equivalent of slaves) remain in China and Russia, where they earn funds that are mostly sent back to their home country. If these workers were forced to return to North Korea, McMaster writes, “it would constrain further the regime’s access to hard currency and force tradeoffs between the spending on its nuclear and missile programs and spending to improve the lives of North Koreans.” 

There was another, overarching problem with the “maximum pressure” campaign. His name is Donald Trump. 

Although the president signed off on the strategy early in 2017, he wouldn’t remain onside. Trump prefers his own, shall we say, unique personal approach to dealing with foreign dictators. And he leapt at the opportunity to hold a “first, historic summit” with Kim in Singapore in June 2018. McMaster thought the face-to-face encounter was premature, as was a subsequent summit in Hanoi in February 2019 and Trump’s crossing the Korean Demilitarized Zone into North Korean territory that June. Trump offered Kim significant economic benefits, if he would just give up his nukes. While North Korea did, thankfully, release some hostages, Trump’s personal touch did not lead anywhere else. The gambit only served to sow additional confusion concerning the “maximum pressure” strategy.

While Kim wasn’t wooed, Trump, in his own words, “fell in love.” McMaster laments the fact that after the Singapore Summit in 2018, President Trump “ceased criticism of North Korean human rights,” “downplayed” Kim Jong-un’s knowledge of Otto Warmbier’s “treatment,” and praised Kim as an “honorable” man who “loves his people.” Warmbier is the American student who was imprisoned by Kim’s regime in 2016 and tortured to the verge of death before being returned to the U.S. in 2017, only to die several days later. Early on in his administration, Trump vocally criticized North Korea’s treatment of Warmbier. But his personal style of diplomacy led him to drop the truthful charge. “I was really being tough, and so was [Kim],” Trump riffed at a rally in West Virginia. “And we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love. No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters.”

North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs remain intact. 

McMaster resigned as Trump’s National Security Advisor in the spring of 2018. His successors have been left to deal with the Kim regime. It is unclear how the U.S. government will approach this thorny issue in the months and years ahead. But McMaster’s book should lead policymakers to question many of the assumptions of the past. 

For instance, it is widely assumed that the Kim family has wanted nukes for defense purposes—to ward off the threat of a military invasion. McMaster argues this isn’t the case, describing this as an example of our “mirror imaging of an adversary”—seeing the North Korean regime in our own terms, instead of how it sees itself. He points to the North Korean dictator’s desire for “final victory” over South Korea, in which a “red-colored unification” would be achieved. McMaster also notes that the North Koreans have more than enough conventional arms to raise the cost of invasion to prohibitive levels, meaning they don’t need nukes. “And what was North Korea so eager to deter?” McMaster asks. “Every act of aggression and violence against the United States, South Korea, and Japan since the invasion of South Korea in June 1950 was initiated by the North.” 

If anything, America’s pursuit of a diplomatic answer to the North Korean challenge across multiple administrations has demonstrated that there is very little reason for Kim Jong-un to fear a U.S.-led invasion. McMaster does not advocate a military offensive, noting the risks involved, but he advises policymakers to consider all of the scenarios one can imagine. 

We can be sure of one thing: That task will confront either a second term Trump administration, or a new Biden administration, because the North Korean threat remains. 

Photo by Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.