North and South Korea are now in a diplomatic honeymoon, while a second summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump is on the horizon. It’s a state of affairs that the US president has been keen to claim credit for.
According to the oft-repeated trope by Trump, it was his policy of “maximum pressure” that forced North Korea to capitulate to the point where it’s negotiating with its enemies and making nods toward denuclearization. The policy was first articulated by Trump in January in his inaugural State of the Union address, where he said that the US was “waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent” North Korea from threatening the world with its nuclear missiles. It’s a theme that’s certainly found fans in South Korea, where Trump’s popularity has steadily risen (paywall) in 2018.
So successful does the president consider his threats that he’s now adopting maximum pressure with regards to Iran to get the country to halt its nuclear program. As the midterm elections approach, it’s likely that Americans will hear more about Trump’s foreign-policy achievements as he galvanizes support for the Republicans.
In a new book, On the Brink, Van Jackson, an expert on North Korea and nuclear strategy at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, recounts how close we came to a nuclear crisis in 2018, while debunking Trump’s claims that he deserves much of the credit for how the world then managed to pull back from the edge. Jackson spoke with Quartz ahead of the book’s launch on Nov. 30.
The interview has been lightly edited.
What state were US-North Korea relations in under president Obama?
By the time Obama came to office, the Six-Party Talks had already fallen apart. Obama had pledged engagement and accepted right upfront that CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization) was the goal, but that was in direct conflict with North Korea. Kim Jong Il had ruled out the talks as a solution, having said in a 2009 conversation with Hillary Clinton that he wanted to resolve the issue bilaterally. There was a conflict over ends and means.
The policy became known as “strategic patience” under Obama. However, people were not ringing alarm bells within the administration—rather, there were signs that they were going to hand this hot potato off to their successor.
What happened when Trump came into office?
The Trump administration was not prepared to win the presidency, and they were focused mostly on internal staffing. The obvious solution (on North Korea) then was to say that “Obama didn’t go far enough.” And that’s how you end up with the deck stacked in favor of maximum pressure. They’ve been pretty consistent since in their talking points in claiming that it was maximum pressure that brought about diplomacy.
How do you assess that claim?
It’s completely false. That claim and what it has produced is why everyone has such ridiculous hopes for the diplomacy that’s happened in 2018. If Kim Jong Un came to the table because he was desperate, then of course you’re going to expect him to make unprecedented concessions, like cutting his arsenal in half. But we’re not seeing any sign of that. The only reason people think that that might be the case—an absurdly optimistic one—is because of the narrative of maximum pressure out there.
What is Kim’s strategy?
Kim’s basic set of goals have been the same the whole time. His first few years were about building a nuclear deterrent, and purging his regime of internal challengers. He’s the anti-psychopath, he’s hyper-rational. The November 2017 inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) test had proven his ability to touch the US. That was the minimum threshold he needed to be able to take his chips and walk away from the table.
And it was literally within weeks of that November ICBM test that he gives his New Year’s speech where he tries to leverage the Winter Olympics, and the charm offensive starts. The charm offensive of 2018 would not have happened if North Korea had not achieved that viable nuclear deterrent.
But economic development has always been one of Kim’s goals, it was just never the top priority. Diplomacy is how you get sanctions relief—continuing to get more missiles and nukes only creates more sanctions. Now, he’s thinking he needs to find a way to get sanctions relief especially if he’s going to deliver on his promise in the speech, which was to focus on the economy. That’s going to require outside investment and support.
So what did bring the crisis to an end?
The whole end of the crisis was serendipity. It was necessary condition after necessary condition that brought it to an end.
We avoided war because of luck—South Korea had a progressive administration and was hosting the Olympics, and Kim had his viable nuclear deterrent by that point. And, in some weird perverse way, we were lucky that Trump doesn’t place any value in the things he says and can change his policies on a dime. Trump doesn’t take his own words seriously enough to be committed to them. So all of that talk and firing off missiles and his nuclear button being bigger, it’s all kind of a show.
Are you feeling good about where we are now?
All the people I know who are Korea experts are just riding the peace train, having a good time. I understand that, I would love to feel that way.
…if you rely on the whimsy and goodwill of individual leaders to avoid nuclear war, then you’re not in a stable situation. Right now we’re in an illusion of stability. After all, all it took was one asshole to make blustery threats to make an uneasy status quo into a nuclear crisis. The situation now is far more precarious than anybody cares to admit. The silver lining is that North and South Korea having positive relations is a source of stability, but if a conservative comes back to power in South Korea, all the goodwill falls apart.
Do you feel like a kind of Cassandra figure in 2018?
I was very welcome in 2017, and I think it was because I had a way of explaining the situation in a way that people appreciated, because it showed why the situation was dangerous. In 2018 it’s much less so, as people are much more interested in what the immediate thing is, which is diplomacy. Nobody’s paying attention to the fact that a crisis can emerge from the structure of the situation.
What do you make of Trump’s threats to apply “maximum pressure” on Iran?
It’s not going to work. Maximum pressure caused the crisis, and then Kim ended the crisis. If he didn’t, maximum pressure might have been the cause of war. Who’s going to end a crisis in Iran like Kim did? Iran is too far away from achieving a nuclear deterrent, and Kim wouldn’t have pivoted to diplomacy if it were not for that.
But the one thing that any state can’t do now, is you can’t rely on the ability to negotiate a credible deal with the Trump administration. They can decide for purely political or personal reasons to end commitments to other nations.