Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How Would President Trump's Trade Response To North Korea Work?


President Trump responded to the nuclear test yesterday by tweeting criticism of South Korea, one of America's strongest allies in the region. Quote, "South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work. They only understand one thing." Trump also tweeted that he's considering stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.

Joining us now to discuss this is David Kang. He's director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. Welcome.

DAVID KANG: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: That tweet from President Trump says the United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea. What would that actually involve?

KANG: It would involve hundreds of billions of dollars of trade stopping because of course China, Russia, India are all top-10 traders with North Korea. So we would be essentially not trading with anybody.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like you're saying this is not especially realistic.

KANG: No, it's not realistic at all.

SHAPIRO: And at the same time, The Washington Post reports that President Trump is considering scrapping a U.S. trade deal with South Korea, the American ally that is supposed to be working with the U.S. to stop North Korea. What impact would that have?

KANG: Again, I think it would have a negative impact on everything. We may or may not need to renegotiate the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. But to choose now when we try to help our ally and stand together on the North Korea threat seems to be the most divisive thing we could do. It seems to be self-consciously harming our relationship with a key ally.

SHAPIRO: And so how would you describe this administration's approach to the issues of trade and national security, especially with regards to North Korea?

KANG: Well, I think Trump came to office on - one of the planks was that trade is unfair, and you know, he needs to do something about it. So you know, that's fine I guess. But that is different than national security. And they seem to be conflating the two in ways that are making situation worse, at least in the case of North Korea.

SHAPIRO: So if not trade, what would be the more useful levers for the U.S. to use right now?

KANG: Well, I think the first thing that we would do is I would like to see the U.S. administration overall stop making empty threats, whether it's Nikki Haley talking about begging for war or Mattis saying we will respond with overwhelming massive might.

SHAPIRO: Mattis is the defense secretary.

KANG: Yes, the defense secretary, right? These are so over-the-top taunts that in some ways they weaken American credibility because it's not clear that we would follow through with any of them.

SHAPIRO: What could the U.S. do to actually solve this problem?

KANG: Well, I think one of the dirty secrets is that North Korea's not a problem that we can solve. It is not a problem to be solved. It's not like we can do a little bit of X, a little bit of Y and somehow there's a magic formula and, poof, North Korea will just disappear and problem solved - on to the next one. It is a country we're going to have to live with. It's not going to collapse. It's not going away. And one thing that we have done is, by focusing so much on threats, we're getting North Korea to respond in arming itself.

And in other ways, I think what we need to do is realize, as ugly as it is, this is a country we're going to have to live with in the long term. And deterrence works. They're not going to attack us first. That is absolutely clear. So as long as we don't attack them first, there won't be a war. Then we just have to figure out what is the long-term play for getting the regime to change and to help the human rights situation in North Korea. And that's a different subject than calling them names.

SHAPIRO: Each time North Korea demonstrates its weapons capabilities, people become more and more worried (laughter). How worrisome is this latest detonation?

KANG: They're all worrisome in the sense that the reason North Korea tests is because their missiles get better. That's why they test. They improve them. The key thing to remember is so far, these are all tests. They have not used them on the United States or on our allies. And there's no indication that they plan to. So they're all worrisome in the sense that allows North Korea to attack us back. But it's not an indication that they intend to attack us first.

SHAPIRO: Did the U.N. Security Council meeting this morning give you any confidence in the international community's ability to address this?

KANG: You know, one of the things that we do is we put sanctions on North Korea, and North Korea predictably meets that kind of pressure with shooting off some missiles and showing they're not going to back down. We then add more sanctions, and we just end up where we are, tit for tat. So I think, you know, sanctions and, you know, firm talk is fine for domestic consumption, but I don't think it solves the problem. So I don't think anything the U.N. is doing is moving us in the right direction.

SHAPIRO: David Kang is director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. Thanks for joining us.

KANG: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.