Neither Trump or Kim may want war, but one of the interesting teachings of game theory is that a war neither side wants can be sparked easily if the war’s goals and antecedent events incentivize escalation.
At this stage the US and Kim are very close war. To understand why we look at each side’s goals and risk & reward incentive structures.
Kim does not want a war. If he wanted one he would have already used his existing arsenal to start it. Kim sees an ICBM as a deterrent that minimizes the risk his hostile actions invite American attacks by increasing the risk of retaliation for America. Shielded by the deterrent power of future ICBMs Kim can then afford to act more aggressively than ever before even if he never intends to commit suicide by launching a preemptive nuclear attack against America: ICBMs open opportunities for nuclear blackmail against the US, Japan and South Korea in exchange for military and economic concessions and agreements to look the other way at the North’s black market criminal activities.
Trump, too, does not want war. He could live with the Kim regime so long as it abandoned its ICBM ambitions. But Trump’s overarching goal is to prevent Kim from being able to strike the Continental United States. In the past the conventional and limited WMD arsenal of North Korea was dangerous enough to deter America from attacking the North’s nuclear program. But an ICBM is so dangerous to America that now either a very bloody conventional war or a nuclear exchange becomes an acceptable risk in American risk-reward analysis.
But because the goals of the two heads of state are in direct conflict, game theory teaches both sides may end up at war.
Recent UN sanctions are unlikely to halt this march to war. Since Kim’s motivation to acquire ICBMs is to enable him to engage in future nuclear blackmail, game theory teaches he is more likely to accept severe economic hardship in the short term to complete his program.
Game theory also teaches that as a conflict draws closer, risk-reward calculations can change to incentivize either deescalation or further escalation.
The current trends on the Korean Peninsula are increasingly incentivizing war.
Kim is incentivized to not back down with every threat he makes because the more he vows to proceed until the end the weaker he will look to his generals if he ultimately backs down. Weakness and loss of faith could invite a coup (although, at least a coup is one threat facing Kim that Trump can sympathize with). Thus the chances of a retreat on his part are diminishing rapidly.
Meanwhile, the speed with which the ICBM program is advancing greatly incentivizes Trump to favor preemptive war.
With tensions higher than ever, a new possibility comes into play: Kim’s generals are incentivized to mount a coup (even if Kim at this point has backed himself too far into a corner to back down) the more likely war becomes.
Previously, North Korean generals were hugely dissuaded from mounting a coup against the ruling dynasty by a prisoner’s dilemma – even if their best collective option was to cooperate and plot an overthrow, the great individual risks and uncertainty to each general of getting caught (How would a sincere plotter know there are no informants within the small circle of coup plotters? How would a sincere plotter know another sincere plotter wouldn’t be caught or change their mind at a key moment?) greatly discouraged such cooperation.
Now that they face a real chance of a nuclear war that will destroy them the risk of organizing a coup becomes more less risky, though by no means a statistical certainty.
To increase the odds the generals turn on Kim and enter serious peace talks, Trump should move advanced American reinforcements to the Korean Peninsula and vicinity to make clear he is serious about waging war.
With the arrival of more American warships, nuclear weapons, submarines, F-22s and other aircraft, and missiles Trump increases his last remaining (if still long shot) chance to end the Korean ICBM project without firing a shot.
And if the generals still do not turn, American forces will be in theater to eliminate Kim’s ICBM project for them.