Entry 76: Some Findings From Year 1 of the Trump Era

Editor’s Note: This is the 76th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I only had about an hour to write today, but managed 600-ish words.  It’s been a trip cobbling together a history of events that took place only one year ago.  I’ve said this before, but the rate at which new information flows and the volume of information overall makes everything feel like it happened so long ago that it’s barely real.  That troubles me.

Some interesting insights I’ve discovered/re-discovered as I’ve been writing the chapters on the still-evolving Trump era:

Trump had not made up his mind about the overall valence of his approach to North Korea until February 2017.  Before inauguration, it could’ve gone in any direction.

The deck was stacked strongly in favor of maximum pressure before Trump even took office.  The last year of the Obama administration was spent layering on as much pressure on North Korea as possible so that the next administration had “options”—that is, Obama’s successor would have things they could remove to create good will.  It totally backfired.  Trump’s team saw Obama as “weak,” so whatever they did had to be at least as much as Obama did on North Korea.  In practice, maximum pressure was a literal continuation of Obama’s North Korea policy in his final year.

Even though the whole game was tilted in favor of maximum pressure, the Trump team was looking for a pathway to engagement with Pyongyang in the early months.  There was direct communication and North Korean officials were going to visit New York for a Track 1.5 dialogue that might’ve been an on-ramp to negotiations.  But when the Trump administration found out that Kim Jong Un had his big brother assassinated in a Malaysian airport in February, the State Department prevented the approval of the North Koreans’ visas.

The summer of 2017 was another window when the United States had direct communication with North Korea and the State Department (undermanned as it was) was bending over backward to stimulate the diplomatic track with Pyongyang.  But then Otto Warmbier was released to U.S. custody in June and died only a few days later, and he had clearly been tortured in a morbid kind of way.  This had a hardening effect on Trump, Pence, and some of the other hawks, and led to a lot of over-the-top threats and insults aimed at Pyongyang, which again killed momentum favoring dialogue.  The irony was that North Korea seemed to have released Warmbier as a positive gesture; they thought the United States would be grateful.

Maximum pressure is pretty much the only option that was ever available to Trump; the question was whether and when there would be a diplomatic track in parallel to take advantage of the pressure.  That diplomatic track never materialized for circumstantial, non-strategic—indeed, emotional—reasons.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.