Trump’s North Korea ‘Extortion Money’ Tweet Heats Up National Debate, Here’s What the Facts Say

President Donald Trump uses loaded language.

The latest example is the president’s tweet that the United States has been paying North Korea “extortion money” for 25 years:

Numerous members of the U.S. news media reacted in the predictable and, from the White House’s point-of-view, desirable way.

Trump’s charged statements are implied arguments, standing invitations to his opponents to begin conversations on his preferred terrain, and thus, ones they are likely to lose.

This rhetorical tactic, seemingly torn from the pages of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” — not only a time-honored military guide, but a popular business manual — shifts the conversation in the desired direction and captures media coverage, thereby displacing or crowding out other potential conversations. The book advises, “By altering his arrangements and changing his plans, he keeps the enemy without definite knowledge. By shifting his camp and taking circuitous routes, he prevents the enemy from anticipating his purpose.”

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The plausible deniability for the Trump administration is the use of the term “extortion money.” As the New York Times pointed out, “It was not clear what money the president was referring to.” Its report, in a loosely connected way, contains the probable answer:

Over the years, the United States has given money to North Korea for humanitarian assistance. And attempts to establish better relations have included lessening some of the economic sanctions on the North.

A Fox News report drilled down further on the nature of this aid to North Korea:

According to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report, “between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in assistance: slightly more than 50 percent for food aid and about 40 percent for energy assistance.”

The CRS report clarifies the diplomatic context of foreign aid to North Korea:

The Bush Administration resumed assistance in FY2007. In the fall of 2007, when progress began to be made in the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program, the United States began providing heavy fuel oil (HFO) in return for Pyongyang freezing and disabling its plutonium-based nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.

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It is accurate to characterize this as a quid pro quo exchange, one that the North Koreans arguably have failed to honor. CRS also notes criticism of humanitarian assistance to the communist state:

The first shipment was sent on June 29, 2008, after an agreement on monitoring was signed. Food aid to the DPRK has been scrutinized because Pyongyang restricts the ability of donor agencies to operate in the country.

The U.S. foreign relations situation with North Korea recalls the situation leading to the grain embargo against the communist U.S.S.R. in the 1980s. The “economic denial measures” were a consequence of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. As a declassified CIA report stated, the controversial measure that “shocked the Soviet Union the most” was the partial grain embargo.

One assumption underlying the grain embargo, and humanitarian measures, is the concept of substitutability: If a dictatorial regime doesn’t have to feed its people, or employ more resources to do so, then it can redirect resources to military spending, like researching and building nuclear weapons.

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Whether or not North Korea is receiving “extortion money” from the United States can be reduced to the question: Is North Korea receiving money or resources in exchange for good behavior? Because the nation has been receiving foreign aid from the U.S. since 1995, according to the CRS report. And if a qualifier of such foreign aid is that the state demonstrates more desirable behavior, then North Korea appears to have failed to live up to its side of the bargain, whether clearly stated in agreements or implied through diplomatic signaling.

The addendum or kicker in this tweet is the international relations argument that “talking is not the answer!” This belies Trump’s classical realist perspective, which eschews liberal internationalist idealism and reduces interstate relations to a series of power plays contextualized within a state of anarchy.

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In an apparent commentary on Clausewitz, the 19th-century author of “On War,” Chinese diplomat Zhou Enlai once stated that “all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”

This appears to be in accordance with President Trump’s view of diplomacy: When talking has its use, talk. When it’s outlived its usefulness, the time for talking is over.

Such a worldview can seem to be an affront to liberal internationalists who are attempting to transform the world into a more peaceful global order.

President Trump’s tweet demonstrates the difference in assumptions between idealists and realists in international relations; continuing a long-running debate that has no real chance of ending anytime soon.

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