What Trump got right — and wrong — about North Korea

Few people have had a front-row seat to the drama and danger of US-North Korea relations over the last four years. Markus Garlauskas is one of them.

As the national intelligence officer for North Korea on the US National Intelligence Council from July 2014 to June 2020, he briefed President Donald Trump and other top government officials on what was going on inside the secretive country. What did North Korean leader Kim Jong Un really want? Would he give up his nuclear weapons? And was Trump’s diplomatic effort yielding any results?

In his first extended, one-on-one interview since leaving government, Garlauskas paints a picture that’s a little different from the one widely accepted about Trump’s dealings with North Korea.

Yes, the risk of war increased in 2017, when Trump was threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea in response to its weapons tests, but Washington and Pyongyang had actually come closer to military conflict in previous years. Yes, Trump and Kim left Hanoi without a nuclear deal, but the fault there lies with the dictator, not the president. And yes, the US should avoid a full-scale war with North Korea, but it shouldn’t shy away from another 2017-style confrontation.

“If Kim senses that the US is more afraid of war than he is, then he has the advantage,” Garlauskas said.

Garlauskas laid out a game plan for whoever occupies the White House next year: Get North Korea to stop testing missiles and nuclear bombs, and then develop a policy to convince Pyongyang to part with its weapons. Halting those tests will give the US the space to develop the right mix of pressure and persuasion. “Otherwise you’re just reacting to them — and then you’re in another really, really tough spot,” Garlauskas said.

Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

North Korea just held a parade in which it unveiled new advanced weapons, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could potentially reach all of the US. What does this tell us about Trump’s diplomatic efforts toward North Korea over the last four years?

Markus Garlauskas

What it tells us is exactly what Kim said at the end of his speech, which is that time is on North Korea’s side, not on America’s side. The parade also demonstrated the ability of North Korea to continue advancing its weapons programs despite international sanctions, despite pressure. It really showed the progress they’re continuing to make in terms of their capabilities.

Alex Ward

That portends a pretty rough upcoming four years, regardless of who is in the White House.

Markus Garlauskas

We’re in a very tough situation, so I think the the first step is essentially do a triage and stop the bleeding. We need to focus our efforts on preventing these new weapons systems displayed during the parade from actually being tested.

If the North Koreans are not convinced to maintain at least some restraint on weapons testing, regardless of which administration is in office next year, it will basically destroy any chance for diplomacy on favorable terms. It will be very, very difficult to say that we’re containing the threat or having any sort of a negotiation that’s advantageous to us.

Once you get past that point, if you can get North Korea to halt its testing of the more advanced systems, then it becomes possible to talk about having a different type of negotiation with North Korea. But you have to deal with it early and prevent the North Koreans from launching a new provocative test, otherwise you’re just reacting to them — and then you’re in another really, really tough spot.

Alex Ward

Trump, of course, claims his efforts with North Korea have been successful. One of his main arguments is that he stopped a war from happening, and that if weren’t in charge the US would be in World War III.

Is there any truth to that?

Markus Garlauskas

This is a wickedly hard problem — across administrations, across parties — that has no easy answers. Sometimes the best you can do is avoid the situation from spinning out of control. So I think there is some validity to the idea that it could have been a lot worse during the Trump years.

However, I will tell you that I think we got much closer to war in 1994, in 2010, and in 2015 than we did in 2017. There was a very large gap between the rhetoric and the activity in 2017. And if you say we almost went to war in 2017, then you’re essentially saying the US almost started the war, because there was no sign Kim Jong Un was interested in going to war — he was testing weapons. He wasn’t striking South Korea or sinking ships.

Relatives of sailors missing in 2010 after the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan clash with soldiers during a briefing on a rescue operation, at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul.
Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

Alex Ward

That’s a pretty provocative statement you just made, because there was a widespread sentiment at the time in 2017 that the possibility of the US going to war with North Korea was maybe not likely, but at least much likelier than in recent years.

Markus Garlauskas

I’m not saying that the rhetoric was completely insignificant, but I am saying the “fire and fury” rhetoric was exaggerated in its significance in comparison to the actual, tangible actions being taken in 2017. What was more important is you saw the US exercise a great deal of restraint in terms of our military posturing.

You didn’t see the evacuation of civilians from South Korea. You didn’t see activities actually penetrating into North Korea. You didn’t see military strikes. You didn’t see a lot of things that could have been done or that would have increased the risk of a strong North Korean reaction.

I just had a conversation with retired Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, who until recently commanded US and UN troops in South Korea. It was his argument, and one that rings true to me, that some degree of military posturing was necessary to show North Korea we were serious, and that we were not going to indefinitely tolerate this level of activity.

In the end, what we did was very limited, very prudent, and it showed the North Koreans that despite what the president was saying, the US wasn’t gearing up for an attack or major regime-change operation.

Alex Ward

But both you and I recall the reports of a considered “bloody nose” strike, and Bob Woodward’s new book features a section about the US military updating operational war plans for a fight with North Korea. These and other accounts seem to back the notion that the potential for war in 2017 really was higher than it needed to be.

Markus Garlauskas

There is no question that there was a heightened level of activity and preparation. But updating war plans is a very normal activity that you do on a regular basis, particularly when there are heightened tensions. It’s natural to focus on dusting those off.

The activities described in the book, in terms of what actually took place, I think those were very limited and very normal sorts of things to do when you’re dealing with a country like North Korea that, among other things, was accelerating its violations of UN Security Council resolutions.

Alex Ward

Why, then, do you think there was so much fear of a war in 2017? I recall it feeling quite scary.

A 2017 picture released from North Korea’s official news agency shows leader Kim Jong Un delivering a statement insulting President Donald Trump.
AFP via Getty Images

Markus Garlauskas

One major element is that it comes from indefinite extrapolation. If you were to just have North Korea continue on the path that it was on indefinitely, and not show any restraint — which it did in 2018 when it pivoted to diplomacy — Pyongyang was traveling along a path of escalation. And we were traveling along essentially a collision course, trying to convince the North Koreans that if they stayed on that path it was going to end in war.

I don’t want anyone to take away the idea that the risk of war was not significant. A war on the Korean Peninsula would have a very high chance of going nuclear with catastrophic consequences. There would be an unimaginable number of deaths and destruction of the international order. That would be taking place on China’s doorstep, potentially pulling Beijing into the situation.

Even a small increase in the probability of that happening was definitely a significant risk that’s worth paying attention to. But still, the chances of that happening were a very low probability.

Alex Ward

I want to turn to the Hanoi summit, where Trump and Kim walked away without a nuclear deal. The diplomatic effort never recovered from that event, and I’m wondering, as someone who helped prepare the president for that meeting, why you think everything went off the rails in Hanoi? As you know, many people consider that summit a failure.

Markus Garlauskas

The failure rests, number one, on Kim Jong Un’s shoulders. He came to the table with a deal for the dismantling of a major nuclear site in exchange for near-complete sanctions relief that, objectively speaking, was a bad deal [for the US].

The president was very well informed, in part through my and my colleagues’ efforts, about what the situation was and what North Korea had and didn’t have. The president made an informed decision to refuse that deal, and Kim could not adjust and did not adjust to propose anything to entice the US. Kim came away very dissatisfied because he went in overconfident he could make the deal he wanted to make.

I think even Kim recognizes he missed an opportunity, even more than the US missed an opportunity, in Hanoi.

Alex Ward

So you’re saying if Kim had been willing to consider anything other than his offer — perhaps offering more denuclearization or less sanctions relief — Trump and Kim might have made a deal in Hanoi?

Markus Garlauskas

Let’s do the counterfactual: If Kim had asked for less, or if Kim had offered more, there’s a possibility that there would’ve been an interim deal in Hanoi. But it would have required Kim to reaffirm that North Korea’s denuclearization was the end goal, which he hasn’t yet done on paper.

Alex Ward

What’s the main takeaway for Trump or Biden from the last four years, and how should they apply it to the next four years of US-North Korea relations if president?

Markus Garlauskas

The number one thing is to try and replicate what we had in 2018 in terms of the halt on weapons testing. If engaging in diplomacy is the price we have to pay for that, so be it.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

The longer-term issue is having to develop a narrative and approach to denuclearization that doesn’t put the US in a position where we have unrealistic, unreasonable expectations about how quickly progress can be made. It also shouldn’t put the North Koreans in a situation where they prefer to wait until the next election cycle and see how it goes.

If we are intending to see North Korea give up its entire nuclear and missile programs lock, stock, and barrel before the four years are out, then we’re basically creating a situation where it puts the onus of time on us and not on the North Koreans. They know if that’s if that’s the goal, they can keep us from getting there and hang on for a few more years.

But in the end, you don’t have much time to think about any of this, you’re just in reaction mode as long as North Korea is continuing to advance its programs with rapid testing. So if you can get a halt to the testing, then you can buy time to have that policy dialogue. If you don’t, then North Korea is driving the train, not you.

Alex Ward

Is there something Trump got right that could be applied in another presidential term?

Markus Garlauskas

We have to be willing to go back to a 2017 level of confrontation. If Kim senses that the US is more afraid of war than he is, then he has the advantage.

North Korea, no matter how many weapons advances it makes, is never going to get to the point where it has the capability to win a war against the United States of America.

As long as you proceed from the premise that Kim is not crazy or suicidal — which of course I don’t proceed from because he’s a rational, cunning, intelligent man who’s really learned a lot about how to deal with the United States and how to lead this country — as long as that’s the basis, then you have to be comfortable with the idea of confronting Kim and convincing him there are military options the United States has and could use.

If we get to a point where we feel sanctions and war can’t work, then that basically puts Kim in the position where he can dictate terms, and I don’t think that’s going to get us where we need to be.

There has to be a willingness to confront Kim militarily — not to initiate war, not to do a bloody nose strike, but basically to make it clear to him that there are limits to what we will tolerate. And we need to make clear that if he crosses into initiating a war, the outcome will be the end of him and his regime. That’s one of the things President Trump said differently than I would have said it, but it needed to be said, frankly, in 2017.

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