The State Department is riddled with key vacancies as Trump seeks nuclear talks with North Korea

The State Department is riddled with key vacancies as Trump seeks nuclear talks with North Korea
Game Theory Scowls at Trump-North Korea Talks
President Donald Trump seems to think that hes off to pick up North Koreas stockpile of nuclear bombs. The problem is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said nothing of the sort. Kim thinks Trump is offering to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power. What could possibly go wrong at their upcoming meeting?

A visit between the two countries heads of state has been a North Korean goal for decades. It would be the ultimate symbol of recognition and, crucially for North Korea, legitimacy. In the waning months of his presidency, Bill Clinton seriously considered traveling to Pyongyang to put the finishing touches on a deal to limit North Koreas missile programs. It didnt work out.

Game Theory Scowls at Trump-North Korea Talks

Clinton of course did eventually visit North Korea in 2009, though it was to win the release of two journalists being held hostage by the regime. Footage from that trip, interestingly enough, was repurposed for the final installment of a curious series of propaganda films made by North Korea under the title The Country I Saw. According to the films narrative, Clinton traveled to North Korea because the U.S. respected North Koreas nuclear weapons and missile programs. Produced at the end of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Ils life, The Country I Saw was an early indication of how North Korean propaganda would embrace the bomb as a symbol of power and legitimacy.

And, according to Axios, Trump recently told Benjamin Netanyahu that he plans to do just that. Pompeos elevation lends credence to that report. And the presidents recent actions on trade provide further, circumstantial evidence that the Iran deal is not long for this Earth. In announcing steel and aluminum tariffs, Trump privileged his own gut instincts and campaign promises over the consensus advice of the White House staff. A flurry of reports have suggested that this declaration of independence was a conscious one; that Trump has decided to defy the experts and shoot from the hip.

So when Trump agreed to a summit, he unwittingly cast himself in what may well be another installment of the propaganda series, one in which North Koreas testing of both thermonuclear weapons and missiles that can strike the U.S. has compelled an American president to come to Kim Jong Un and recognize North Korea as a nuclear-armed power.

Last week, Donald Trump accepted (on a whim) Kim Jong-uns invitation for a face-to-face meeting. At first, criticism of this decision focused on the prospect that our prodigiously ignorant, easily flattered commander-in-chief would get suckered into a lopsided peace deal. But Victor Cha – Trumps tentative pick for ambassador to South Korea, who (reportedly) lost that gig for his off-putting opposition to a preemptive strike on Pyongyang – highlighted a more ominous possibility in an op-ed for the New York Times this week:

Video: Defense Secretary Mattis refuses to speak on North Korea issues – Daily Mail

President Trumps Korea Breakthrough

Trump may mock Kim as Little Rocket Man, but he has volunteered to give him a happy ending. Chuson Film Studios, the outfit behind The Country I Saw, must be blocking out scenes as we speak. And yet, North Korea has not offered to abandon its nuclear weapons — nor does it seem likely to do so. The whole process of how this visit has come about is so strange that it raises questions about whether it will really happen at all.

But if Trump withdraws from the Iran deal on May 12 – the next deadline for him to recertify the agreement – a diplomatic failure with North Korea will be all-but assured. After all, if Trump demonstrates that the United States cannot be trusted to honor the Iranian nuclear agreement – a deal more stringent and comprehensive than any North Korea has ever agreed to in the past, or that experts believe Pyongyang would accept in the near-term future – why on earth would Kim have faith in Americas promises?

When Chosun Film Studios casts this drama, it is going to need a leading man to play Chung Eui-Yong, South Koreas national security advisor. Chung led a delegation to the North to arrange a summit between the two Koreas, a series of meetings that ended in a dinner with Kim Jong Un and members of his family. According to Chung, Kim made a few polite references to denuclearization. But there was no offer to eliminate anything, just an offer to postpone missile and nuclear tests for a bit. There is no official statement, just Chungs version of events. He wouldnt be the first diplomat to improvise a few lines.

The North Korean leader already has good cause to cling to his weapons: In 2003, Muammar Qaddafi took the U.S. up on its denuclearization for security deal — only to be tortured and killed eight years later by rebels whom the U.S. government had backed. If Trump reaffirms the emptiness of Americas pledges to rogue regimes on May 12 – which is to say, right around when his summit with Kim is tentatively scheduled – North Korea would have to be an irrational actor to cede to Trumps demands.

Chung returned to Seoul, offered a positive readout of his meetings in North Korea, then traveled to Washington to do the same. Once he got to the White House, according to press reports, Trump crashed the briefing, invited Chung to the Oval Office and boom!, we have a meeting. But throughout this whole drama, the North Koreans have been silent save for one email sent to The Washington Post that confirmed the invitation but said nothing about denuclearization. North Koreas state media has said nothing. So, what is happening?

Game Theory Scowls at Trump-North Korea Talks
Game Theory Scowls at Trump-North Korea Talks

North Korea wants a summit, thats for sure. But Trumps staff appears uninformed or unwilling to break it to the president that the North Koreans have sought a visit from a sitting president of the U.S. since the Clinton administration. Nor does the staff seem to have told the president that North Korea has given no indication that it is prepared to abandon its nuclear and missile programs. This strikes me as rather dangerous. After all, what happens when Trump figures that out?

But the former Exxon CEO was also one of the administrations staunchest defenders of the Iran nuclear agreement – and among its most ardent opponents of a belligerent approach to North Korea. By contrast, Tillersons replacement – outgoing CIA director Mike Pompeo – was the only senior White House official who encouraged Trump to decertify the Iran deal, even as his colleagues in the intelligence agencies affirmed Tehrans compliance with the agreement.

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

Japan cautious while South Korea upbeat after North Korea talks in Tokyo
Japan cautious while South Korea upbeat after North Korea talks in Tokyo

That wouldnt be so bad. I have long argued that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a fact of life that we should accept, at least privately. That is the best outcome, however clumsily Trump does it. The U.S. needs to come to terms with a nuclear-armed North Korea, just as it did with China. The goal is that North Korea would then reform itself, just as China has. Of course, as we have seen in China, reform and opening has limits. But on the whole, the world would be far safer with this outcome.

How do you know the North Koreans are lying? Because their lips are moving, John Bolton explained to Fox News last week. The former UN ambassador went on to argue that Trumps meeting with Kim Jong-un was a positive development – because, as Cha warns, it could accelerate the breakdown of diplomacy and the onset of military action to combat the North Korean threat.

Video: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offers to meet Donald Trump – Daily Mail

Japans Abe Is Latest Leader Considering Kim Meeting, Report Says

What if thats not how Trump reacts? What if Trump, having deluded himself into thinking hes going to pick up Kim Jong Uns bombs, suddenly decides that hes been double-crossed? He could use the summit outcome to discredit diplomacy and open the pathway toward war. We have already seen U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham threaten Kim that if he were to try to play him … it will be the end of you — and your regime. John Bolton, the architect of the collapse of the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea, has said the visit will fail, show that diplomacy is hopeless and allow us to move to using military might. And the president himself has warned of the ominous alternative if his outreach should fail.

Tillersons attempts to pare back his departments inefficiencies chased 60 percent of Americas top-ranking diplomats out of government – and depressed new applications to the foreign service by half. He leaves the State Department demoralized and understaffed, in a moment when the United States is in dire need of diplomatic expertise.

Video: Trump Improvises His Way Through a Rally and Agrees to Meet Kim Jong-un | The Daily Show

So why are so many people excited about such an unpredictable situation? Probably because we are all collectively terrified of where the situation was headed a few months ago and of what Trump might do if things sour again. In the meantime, South Koreans are working hard to flatter Trump, saying it is his pressure, not Kims weapons, that have brought about a possible summit. The White House staff seems unwilling to contradict them. Everyone is managing Trump, even as he becomes increasingly detached from the reality of the situation, tweeting that Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization.

Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have run out of road on North Korea.

The most relevant film might not be North Korean propaganda at all, but perhaps Sunset Boulevard — Trump as Norma Desmond, the aging actor taking refuge in fantasy to escape a tragic reality she cant accept. Either way, hes ready for his close-up.

Even if Tillerson had stayed on board – and the U.S. continued to honor its nuclear agreement with Iran – there would still be a substantial risk of the Trump-Kim talks ending in failure. The gulf between the American and North Korean conceptions of what a fair denuclearization deal looks like is massive.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

President Donald Trump’s possible meeting with Kim Jong Un to discuss North Korean nuclear weapons is considered a fairly unpredictable event. It’s worth a look at how an economist might use game theory to think about such a summit, if only to explain why there is more room for things to go wrong than to get better.

But Mattis lost the internal fight over tariffs, and also, presumably, over Tillerson. Meanwhile, McMaster is reportedly on his way out of the administration – and one of the top candidates to replace him is an Iran hawk who is publicly rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to fail.
President Trumps Korea Breakthrough
President Trumps Korea Breakthrough

Game theorists often approach a problem by first considering where a series of strategies might end up, and then working backward to understand current choices. When it comes to North Korea, the theorist would start with a scenario in which the country is just a few years from having intercontinental missiles able to target major cities in the U.S. That is good for their leadership and very bad for others, including a South Korea that would end up more vulnerable to a North Korean invasion.

All this would be alarming enough if maintaining a successful nuclear agreement with Iran – and avoiding another military intervention in the Middle East – were the only top-tier foreign policy objectives at stake. But the downside risks of Pompeos elevation extend beyond Iran.

Given that path, it is the U.S. and South Korea that need something from a summit, and that strengthens the bargaining hand of Kim.

The Trump administration is unpredictable. To this point, the adults in the West Wing have prevented the president from triggering a catastrophic foreign policy crisis. But the path to such crisis has never been easier to envision than it is today.

One possibility is that you think a preemptive attack on North Korea is a good idea, or at least necessary. That is far from my view, partly because one never knows how a war with so many moving parts, and so many possibilities for misread signals, is going to turn out. But if you are that hawkish, you might welcome the summit. The U.S. could press for denuclearization, Kim would not accept that (remember Moammar Al Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein?), and then Trump could claim that everything had been tried and a bit later initiate the attack.

If rumors are true, this man will be the highest ranking national security adviser in the White House come May.

Approval of Trumps handling of North Korea increases – CBS News poll

You might think an attack on North Korea is a dubious idea, but that the U.S. could use the summit to bluff and extract concessions. But that is unlikely to work, because any plausible bluff will only convince Kim all the more to keep advancing his nuclear arsenal. 

Another possibility is that you might use the summit to bribe Kim with the promise of aid, to somehow freeze or limit his nuclear program. But South Korea, with American backing, already has tried that policy in the recent past and clearly it failed. 

One scenario is simply that today’s more powerful North Korea can command a much, much higher bribe. But for that to yield anything positive for the U.S., the bribe would have to be so high that North Korea would not cheat on the agreement for fear of losing the payments. Even if you think Trump might consider that “the deal of the century,” it is hard to see Congress allocating so much money to a hostile dictator, with little promise of anything firm in return.

Another problem with the bribe scenario is the behavior it would induce in other nations. Game theory stresses how single actions can signal an entire future for other related cases. North Korea won’t be the last country to acquire nuclear weapons; a short list of other candidates includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. These countries will be watching the North Korean negotiations closely. If the U.S. offers payments to Kim to suspend nuclear testing or weapons development, more countries will be tempted to move in the nuclear direction, if only to receive the payments and perhaps the attention as well.

If North Korea and the U.S. simply talk, and nothing comes of it, that raises the status of Kim Jong Un, who then would keep improving his missiles anyway. So if the U.S. goes ahead with the talks, you might rationally infer that the risk of war has gone up. Furthermore, there is the risk that Trump or Kim could feel humiliated by a summit that yielded nothing, again raising the chance of war or miscalculation leading to disaster.

In chess there is a concept known as “zugzwang,” or “compulsion to move.” It’s used to describe the position of a player with no good options who would prefer to do nothing at all. That’s not a possibility in chess, so the unfortunate player faces a situation in which all roads involve a deterioration of his position.

So is there any move that leaves the U.S. better off? The best possibility I can see comes through China. A summit would focus attention on the North Korean threat, and as a result the Chinese citizenry might demand a solution to the standoff. That could mobilize a stronger Chinese response and a tightening of sanctions, with a constructive response in turn from Kim, while in the meantime the talks keep the South Koreans from rejecting their American alliance. Still, that strikes me as something of a longshot.

Many people, including supporters of this administration, have been critical of Trump’s use of Twitter. But the thing is this: When zugzwang has set in, talking directly can end up a whole lot worse.

To contact the author of this story: Tyler Cowen at

Summit raises hope North Korea will release 3 US detainees

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at

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