Are Trump's North Korea Threats to Distract From His Domestic Failures?

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

As North Korea's nuclear missile program advances, U.S. foreign policy making seems to have split dramatically into two non-congruent paths.

A diplomatic effort aimed at getting the reclusive state to the negotiating table is contradicted by the White House's fiery rhetoric and bellicose posturing.

While the U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson went to Asia to put together a regional diplomatic campaign to contain North Korea, the U.S. president Donald Trump erupted with threats to unleash "fire and fury" on it.

As recently as three months ago Trump said he would be "honored" to meet with his North Korean counterpart.

"We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek the collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula," Tillerson pointed out two weeks ago, carefully paving the way for his Asia trip, which included stops in Manila, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur.

Tillerson's travels and rounds of meetings with his Chinese, Russian, and European counterparts on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum in Manila are now last week's news.

A sudden outburst by Trump, a politician beset by an investigation into his electoral campaign and desperate to reconnect to his base through harsh rhetoric, has led to the United States and North Korea trading threats of preemptive strikes.

Both Russia and China have supported the UN Security Council's recent approval of new sanctions against North Korea. Both countries thought that their voting for sanctions that would knock about $1 billion off North Korea's foreign revenue was a lot to ask for.

Trump's fire-and-fury performance caught them off guard. Anyone who has been following events in North Korea knows that there is no magic-bullet solution to the conundrum presented by this country's history and politics.

A B-1B Lancer from the U.S. Air Force 28th Air Expeditionary Wing drops arsenal while on a combat mission in support of strikes on Afghanistan, December 7, 2001. USAF/Getty

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North) (DPRK) as well as the Republic of Korea (South) were created because at the end of the World War II Soviet troops were occupying the north and U.S. troops the south of the peninsula.

A secretive totalitarian principality that gradually took shape in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula based its political system on a quasi-religion of self-sufficiency, the Juche. The DPRK, which will turn 70 years old next year, is on its way to becoming the longest-held revolutionary autocracy.

The Soviet Union existed for less than 74 years, a record so far. But today Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, would be dismayed to see what has become of his creation.

The People's Republic of China of course exists today, but it has undergone a profound transformation that would make it barely recognizable to Mao Zedong.

The fact that the Kim family of North Korea has managed to keep political power in its hands without rewriting the founding father's ideology or succumbing to the realities of a modern world is remarkable.

The Kims know the business of regime survival. In fact, the leaders of North Korea are arguably world champions in this inhumane dark art. Being publicly threatened by the U.S. is their bread and butter.

This is why both Russia and China, who share the border with North Korea, have always been very careful in using public threats when dealing with the Pyongyang regime.

Russia's or China's lack of edginess toward North Korea is not about any particular sympathies that might exist between former allies, it is about interests. North Korea is a problem for everyone, but it is a different problem in each of the big players' particular case.

"While North Korea's intercontinental nuclear capability is a game-changer for the Americans, it isn't for the Chinese, who have already been living with North Korean nuclear weapons," Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, wrote in a recent opinion piece for CNN.

A collapse of the North Korean regime would mean chaos on China's and Russia's borders. It might very well mean a threat of weapons of mass destruction getting into the hands of rogue actors, a possible civil war, and a refugee crisis that would make the Syrian tragedy pale in comparison.

According to a simulation model created by Jennifer Lind and Bruce Bennett at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, a post-collapse North Korea would require hundreds of thousands of troops to run humanitarian relief operations, border control operations, and missions to find "loose nukes."

Even more fundamental for China and Russia is a geopolitical view of the North Korean conundrum. Hovering over the Korean Peninsula is the prospect, however distant, of a reunification.

Russia cannot help but look at North Korea as a crude analogue of a divided Germany. Russia, which agreed to the German reunification and then saw the institutions of the West expand to Russia's western door, would be loathe to see anything even remotely similar happening at its eastern door.

"Both China and Russia would be apprehensive about a crisis that results in a reunification that would equal a geopolitical gain for the U.S. in the region at their expense," Michael Kofman, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, said in a written comment for this piece.

"Russia and China have rather different relationships with DPRK, but in three areas they have shared concerns which can lead to policy alignment," Kofman observes.

"Both countries dislike the deployment of U.S. missile defense (THAAD) to South Korea; both are worried about the refugee crisis that would result from North Korea's collapse or implosion, and both are concerned that unification on the peninsula would result in America's ally Seoul absorbing North Korea."

One cannot underline enough a relativity factor in this complicated story. North Korea's possible ICBM capability creates a sense of urgency for the White House, whose occupants include a lot of foreign policy novices.

People who are new to the North Korean phenomenon could be excused for being scared. China or Russia—which is partly responsible for the North's very existence—see nothing new in the North Korea story.

They do not like what they see, but they know how to live with it. What they like even less is an American politician trying to solve his domestic problems by fuelling a foreign-policy conflict, just as Vladimir Putin did more than once.

Maxim Trudolyubov, Senior Fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large with Vedomosti, is the author of Me and My Country: A Common Cause (2011) and People Behind the Fence (2016).