The North Korea Reframe

Prior U.S. presidents framed the North Korean nuclear program as a problem between the United States and North Korea, with China as an unhelpful third party with its own interests. That framing was weak and useless. North Korea did whatever it wanted to do.

President Trump recently changed the frame. Now it’s not so much a problem between the United States and North Korea as it is a branding battle between China and the U.S., with North Korea being the less-important part of the equation. President Trump has said clearly and repeatedly that if China doesn’t fix the problem in its own backyard, the USA will step in to do what China couldn’t get done.

See the power in that framing? China doesn’t want a weak “brand.” 

With the new framing, we already see China talking tougher about North Korea. They stopped buying North Korean coal, which is something they said they would do before Inauguration Day. But by then, Trump had already reframed the situation the way I described. And he was weeks from being Commander-in-Chief when he did it.

The only thing lacking in Trump’s reframing was a credible threat that he would launch a decapitation strike against North Korea. That problem was solved over chocolate cake at Mar Lago when the visiting President of China, Xi, observed Trump give the order to send 59 Tomahawk missiles into a sovereign country that had pissed him off just a few days earlier.

Then Trump ordered an “armada” of American warships to the vicinity of North Korea just to remind Xi that we have options.

Trump also suggested that our trade negotiations with China will go a lot better if North Korea is no longer a problem. Trump didn’t go so far as to suggest adding a “North Korea tax” to Chinese imports, to pay for our military presence in South Korea, but I like to think it is an option.

This is the sort of thing I was hoping to see when the Master Persuader took office. His reframing on North Korea is pitch-perfect. We’ve never seen anything like this.

Some of you will be tempted to argue that nothing has really changed. But I think the face-to-face meeting between Xi and Trump, and the movement of North Korea to a branding competition between superpowers is a big, big deal. It would be hard, if not politically impossible, for Xi to go easy on North Korea from this point on.

In related news…

This has been a good week for President Trump. So far, we have seen:

1. Sean Spicer (accidentally?) caused the opposition media to argue that Hitler analogies are ridiculous. 

2. The Syrian attack established Trump as a measured and decisive leader. His popularity will rise. Even many of his critics supported the attack.

3. Trump solved for the “puppet of Putin” allegation by attacking its client state, Syria.

4. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee succeeded, albeit the hard way.

5. The healthcare issue is moving forward after the initial trial-balloon that was more of a negotiating step than a real proposal.

6. Tax reform is now on hold for healthcare reform, but no one thinks that is a bad way to go. The savings on healthcare are part of any budget and tax plan.

7. Relations with China look good. Trump and Xi had good chemistry.

8. China is putting the pressure on North Korea like never before.

9. The economy is good, and optimism is high, in part thanks to Trump. (Mostly the optimism part.)

10. Iran is probably a bit more flexible this week after watching the Syrian attack.

11. News coverage had already mostly evolved from “Trump is Hitler”  to “Trump is incompetent.” The Syrian attack and the North Korean situation moved Trump to “Effective, but some of us don’t like what he is doing” I wasn’t expecting that to happen before the end of the year.

You can tell me other presidents have had better starts. But I doubt that is the case. Keep in mind that Trump started in the deepest hole of any president, ever. He’s already halfway out of the hole and establishing himself as a strong leader on international issues.

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