Here’s a rallying cry for Democrats unsure what to say about the North Korean nuclear crisis: The South Koreans are right. On Sunday, in a typically self-aggrandizing and grammatically challenged tweet, Trump chastised America’s longtime ally. “South Korea is finding, as I have told them that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work,” he declared. “They only understand one thing!” The implication is that because Pyongyang understands only the logic of force, Trump’s policy of threatening war, and aggressively preparing for it, is the best way to convince Kim Jong Un to relinquish his country’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal.
The premise is correct but the conclusion is exactly wrong. Yes, North Korea understands the logic of force. It says so all the time. Again and again, Pyongyang has observed that adversaries of the United States who abandon their nuclear weapons programs—Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi—end up dead. Kim thinks America wants to add his scalp to the list. And why shouldn’t he? The U.S. dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean War than it dropped on the entire Pacific region during World War II, George W. Bush declared the North a member of the “axis of evil” in 2003, and the United States regularly practices “decapitation raids” against Kim’s totalitarian regime. It is precisely because North Korea believes in the logic of force that it is accelerating its nuclear program despite economic sanctions. And it is precisely because North Korea believes in the logic of force that Trump’s policies are so wildly counterproductive. Imagine you’re in a standoff with a man you have bloodied before. You have an AK-47. He has a hunting rifle, which you consider a threat but he considers his best shot at staying alive. If you fire in the air and scream that you’re going to blow him to smithereens, as Trump has done in recent weeks, you won’t make your adversary drop his weapon. You’ll make him to cling to it for dear life.