Trump and North Korea: Dumb Luck or Good Policy?

Pearce Deacon
4 min readApr 4, 2018


No matter how much you dislike Donald Trump or disagree with his policies, you must acknowledge that things are improving on the Korean Peninsula.


I think a quick analysis of the situation prior to Donald Trump becoming president will be helpful. The Obama Administration had a policy regarding Kim Jong Un and North Korea. Each time Kim Jong Un committed some provocative action, the response of the United States was fairly consistent: 1. A clear statement from some low level State Department official that North Korea’s behavior was unacceptable, 2. A complete refusal to engage in any further dialogue until North Korea stops its unacceptable behavior, and 3. A further ratcheting up of economic, diplomatic, and military pressure in the form of more sanctions, more diplomatic isolation, and more United States military threats in and around the Korean Peninsula.

When Donald Trump became president he was soon faced with more of the same; increased provocative behavior from North Korea. He had two choices: 1. Continue with the same policy of non-engagement while increasing economic, diplomatic, and military threats, or 2. Something else. It is clear that the “professionals” from the State Department and other elite foreign policy gurus favored the first approach even though it was clearly not working.

Donald Trump chose option number two: Something else.

Many people have pointed out that Donald Trump is not a politician and that he has no experience in government or in foreign policy. This is true. These same people usually also strongly dislike Donald Trump on a personal level accusing him of being childish, rude, confrontational, reckless, and sometimes even that he is stupid. The last accusation, that Donald Trump is stupid, is clearly false.

Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump regarding his policies or his demeanor, you would be foolish to believe he is stupid. Donald Trump may not have a long and distinguished record in government and public service, but he is an experienced businessman who has had enormous success in a two areas: negotiation and self-promotion.

In the case of how best to respond to continuing and increasing North Korean provocative behavior Donald Trump decided to abandon a policy favored by the foreign policy cognoscenti. He decided to engage Kim Jong Un and the North Koreans more, and threaten them less. Clearly someone must have pointed out to Donald Trump, probably in a condescending yet astute manner, that engaging Kim Jong Un would only further encourage the North Koreans to further bad behavior by rewarding them. It would also make Donald Trump and the United States look weak.

They did not understand how Donald Trump intended to engage Kim Jong Un. Rather than rely on the existing army of diplomatic drones to start proposing understated offers of compromise through quiet diplomatic channels, or use non-governmental actors in the form of old retired politicians, diplomats, and American pop culture icons to visit North Korea, Donald Trump took to Twitter and began insulting Kim Jong Un in particular, and North Korea in general.

Instead of passively ignoring the North Koreans while actively increasing economic, diplomatic, and military threats, Donald Trump directly confronted them!

This is one way you engage with someone who you cannot ignore, but for one reason or another you cannot have a civil dialogue. You stand up to them. You tell them to put up or shut up. You stand your ground.

Oh my God! This is going to lead to Nuclear War… or worse!

Watching the outraged and often over emotional responses of the those various opponents of Donald Trump, and those who opposed this particular strategy regarding North Korea has been interesting if not amusing. They seem to believe that any and all forms of confrontation will lead to violence, and in this case war. Obviously, these people know very little about real life confrontations. I suspect most of them have never in their lives been in school yard confrontation, let alone a fist fight. Most confrontations between individuals and groups do not lead to violence. Most of the time it is just a lot of trash talk, yelling, screaming, and the occasional push and shove. Then the actors find a way to withdraw, sometimes mouthing off as they disengage. Later less hot-headed people in the background try to work things out. At least this is the way that things used to work. I guess in the age of hyper-violence that has imbued American culture, relying upon people to act like normal humans is indeed a frightening prospect.

As it turned out Kim Jong Un and the North Koreans are not crazy. They did not respond like stupid adolescent soap-eaters who have had their brains addled by too much violent music, games, movies, and social media. They responded like normal people. The insulting exchange became less heated. Kim Jong Un and the North Koreans realized that they were now getting the attention that they had so long desired, and they took advantage of it. Instead of launching more missiles they started launching diplomatic efforts.

It is too early to suggest that everything is solved. The North Koreans have a bad history of dishonest dealing (and I suppose there is some basis to point out that the USA does not have an exactly stellar history either — add in the Russians and Chinese and things could get messy).

But I think it is fair to say that things are better than they were before.

Did Donald Trump just get lucky? Or did his long history of dealing with different types of people in business negotiations pay off?