Donald Trump could have an opportunity early in his presidency, if he follows his instincts instead of all the wrong advice he is likely to get on how to deal with North Korea, to prove his Promethean negotiating skills on one of the most serious national-security challenges the United States will confront over the next four years. North Korea, already probably armed with about 20 nuclear bombs, and missiles that can reach America’s regional allies South Korea and Japan, has been sprinting to acquire the capability to put nuclear warheads on top of long-range missiles, with America in its crosshairs. Efforts over the past eight years to slow the North down and prevent it from achieving this goal, relying on a mix of puny sticks and carrots plus otherwise trying to ignore the problem, have been unsuccessful.
There may be a deal to negotiate with the North, but it will take the kind of strong leadership and negotiating prowess that Trump boasted about incessantly during the presidential campaign—and an inclination, which he’s quite clearly demonstrated, to buck the criticism of the foreign-policy establishment. At one point in the campaign, he expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jung Un, to try to work out a deal, asking: “What the hell is wrong with speaking?” That position is at odds with the Obama administration’s apparent preference to treat North Korea, which is almost completely dependent on China for food and energy, as China’s problem. Under this approach, the key to solving the North Korean problem would be to get Beijing to force the North to give up its weapons through enacting “secondary” sanctions that would adversely affect any Chinese businesses or financial institutions with ties to Pyongyang. Hillary Clinton seemed ready to embark on such a course of action.