LONDON — Early in his presidency, Harry Truman received a distinguished visitor at the White House: Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb.”
Oppenheimer, as Truman biographer David McCullough recounts, was “in a state of obvious agitation” about helping to create a weapon that had wreaked such devastation on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That didn’t sit well with Truman; the president couldn’t stand Oppenheimer’s “self-pitying, ‘cry-baby’ attitude,” according to McCullough. “The blood is on my hands,” he told Oppenheimer, “Let me worry about that.”
For Truman, the “buck stops here” wasn’t just a saying. He was a man who said what he did — and did what he said. His friends and enemies alike could trust that he would keep his promises and follow through on his threats. Above all, he made tough decisions and took full ownership of their consequences.
Truman’s lessons in leadership are well worth noting as the United States tries to solve one of the most difficult challenges it has faced in the last twenty years: North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program. Through years of clever maneuvering, North Korea has used its nuclear program to hold our ally (and North Korea’s longtime arch-enemy) South Korea hostage while repeatedly bringing Washington to the negotiating table on Pyongyang’s terms. It’s a situation that Truman, who went to war to defend South Korea against the North, wouldn’t have taken lying down. As President Trump seeks a new diplomatic agreement to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program — unless, as some have suggested, his administration has privately accepted North Korea as a nuclear power — maybe it’s time he took a few pages from Truman’s playbook.
When President Truman first learned about North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 24, 1950, he quickly understood the immense challenge he faced. His daughter Margaret wrote that Truman has “made clear, from the moment he heard the news, that he feared this was the opening of World War III.” He also didn’t hesitate: the United States had to go to war. “If the Communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea without opposition from the free world, no small nation would have the courage to resist threats and aggression by stronger Communist neighbors,” Truman would later reflect.
Thanks to a U.S.-led coalition that held the line between North and South at the 38th Parallel, the North Korean invasion did not succeed. But over the following decades, North Korea turned to other tactics to threaten its southern neighbor. Chief among them: building up its military and nuclear weapons program.
With more than one million soldiers and as many as five million reservists, North Korea’s heavily armored military is one of the world’s most formidable, as is its nuclear arsenal: a 2017 North Korean long-range missile test demonstrated it could reach any part of the continental United States, and each of Pyongyang’s six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017 have generated progressively more destructive power. The 2017 test was hailed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who directed his state media to declare that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
How did North Korea reach this point? Through a failure of Soviet policy — that later became a failure of U.S. policy.
North Korea’s nuclear program had started in the 1950s, under peaceful pretenses and with Soviet support. But by 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union left it with no patron in Moscow, Pyongyang was confronted with evidence from the world community that its nuclear program was not peaceful. Instead of complying, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entirely. In response, the United States faced “three broad options” as my friend, Ambassador Robert Gallucci, tells me. One, “acceptance and containment, to include sanctions, alliance cultivation, military preparedness, and a strong deterrent posture.” Two, “military strikes with the possibility of a second Korean War.” And three, “Negotiation, with compromise and concession, but without legitimizing the North’s nuclear weapons.”
It chose option three. In 1994, the U.S. and North Korea negotiated a pact called the Agreed Framework, which held until the early years of the George W. Bush administration. Analysts disagree on whether the agreement failed because North Korea cheated or because the U.S. failed to follow through on key commitments while Pyongyang did its part by shutting down its plutonium production. Whatever the case, it’s clear an Al Gore administration would have sought to preserve the agreement. Instead, the Bush administration came into office skeptical of its value and inclined to view difficulties with the North Koreans as proof that the Clinton administration had negotiated a bad agreement.
That made abandoning the Agreed Framework an easy call for the Bush administration. Led by then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton — who also happens to be Trump’s fire-breathing National Security Advisor — the Bush administration, in Bolton’s words, “shattered the Agreed Framework,” while issuing a very Trump-like promise to negotiate a better deal. It was a promise they failed to deliver.
The decision to withdraw left North Korea with practically no brake on its nuclear weapons development. It immediately restarted the nuclear facilities it had agreed to shut down under the Agreed Framework. With international sanctions meant to cripple Pyongyang’s nuclear program also lifted, the regime hit fast-forward: just five years later, in 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. Bolton then tried furiously to negotiate a nuclear freeze, but by then, it was too late. “I think,” says Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the framework, “that the deal could have been preserved and that the North would have remained a country without nuclear weapons.”
Instead, North Korea’s nuclear program has accomplished for Pyongyang what the Korean War could not: permanently holding South Korea hostage, with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over its head.
How might Truman handle this hostage situation?
First, he would be clear about the consequences if North Korea does choose to use its nuclear weapons: a devastating retaliation that will end the Kim regime for good. The U.S. military and its nuclear arsenal will persist long after North Korea has exhausted its nuclear capabilities. North Korea should not harbor any doubts about America’s resolve or its ability to execute this threat if necessary.
Making a credible threat of retaliation against North Korea, though, may well be a challenge for the current President. After all, President Trump has undermined the credibility of his word at every turn. In 2017, he threatened North Korea with “fire and fury.” In 2018, despite no evident change in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, he claimed “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” This year, it seems, he is “in love” with Kim Jong Un. But if President Trump wants North Korea to take the United States seriously, he ought to follow Truman’s lead and say only what he truly means.
Second, Truman wouldn’t just follow through on his threats. He would keep his promises, too.
That means that, if he negotiated an agreement with North Korea, he wouldn’t drag his feet or abandon the agreement later, as the United States did with the Agreed Framework. He would fulfill every commitment, putting the burden of violating the agreement on the North Koreans. If President Trump successfully negotiates his own deal with North Korea, he needs to be able to keep any promises he makes.
Third and finally, Truman would act decisively to guarantee the security and independence of our ally — just as he did for South Korea in the Korean War.
North Korea, with its ability to use nuclear weapons against the South on a whim, has the means and the motive to continue to hold Seoul hostage in perpetuity. But what if South Korea had its own nuclear weapons that it could use to defend itself, without relying on the U.S.?
Truman might well consider giving South Korea that nuclear deterrent. At the least, he might give Pyongyang an ultimatum: make a deal to reduce the nuclear threat, or we’ll give South Korea nuclear weapons. Either way, the U.S. would help South Korea break out of position as a perpetual captive of the North.
Ambassador Gallucci, for one, believes that “Trump diplomacy can succeed, if it eventually embraces traditional, detailed engagement by experts who can work out the details of transparency: inspections, verification, and the like.”
It may not seem like North Korea, backed by China, has any incentive to give up its nuclear program, which is a huge source of national pride to the North Korean people — after all, the perceived strength it gets from its nuclear weapons forced the U.S. President to meet with Kim three times, on North Korea’s terms, and even saw Trump last month become the first U.S. President to cross the border and step onto North Korean soil. But a credible deadline and the threat of nuclear weapons in South Korea might bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table for real, eventually folding North Korea into the international community working today to ensure that none of these weapons ever get used.
Upon his first viewing of the atomic bomb that he helped create, Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita, saying, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” If we fail to reign in North Korea’s nuclear provocations, Harry Truman might not be the only one with blood on his hands.