Mac Deford: Donald Trump & Kim Jong-un; The Odd, and Dangerous, Couple
Thursday, April 20, 2017 11:48 AM
Who’s bluffing? The dumpy little North Korean dictator with the weird hair? Or the dumpy big American president with the weird hair?
With luck, we’ll never have to find out.
But when American Vice President Pence visits the DMZ separating North and South Korea, and announces that “the era of strategic patience is over,’’ you hope that Trump is not merely playing with what he considers a good hand, but that he’s been able to get a glimpse of North Korea’s cards.
Trump and China’s Xi-Jinping apparently hit it off nicely at Mar-a-Lago a few weeks back. But was their meeting such a success that the Trump administration feels comfortable in — publicly — upping the ante against North Korea?
While Pence did not outline specifically what the current US administration has in mind to replace “strategic patience’’ in dealing with Pyongyang, presumably they have been reviewing the situation and apparently think they’ve got some good options. Do they?
North Korea has perhaps a dozen nuclear weapons and is developing a missile delivery system that analysts think will be able to reach the US mainland before Trump’s first term is completed (assuming, that is, he does complete it; but I digress).
So what are the options? Basically, three: continue the status quo; attack North Korea; or work with China to negotiate a deal. The first option has worked for decades, but the status quo is changing as North Korea continues its incrementalist approach to becoming a very real nuclear threat to the United States.
What’s clear is that the implied US military threat, to attack North Korea if it refuses to halt its nuclear development, isn’t working. On the other hand, the strong likelihood that North Korea would launch a deadly artillery attack against Seoul, a city of some 15 million people less than 30 miles from the North Korean border, has prevented the US from taking a pre-emptive strike against the north. The Trump administration’s enhanced anti-North Korean rhetoric only further endangers an already uneasy situation.
Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick: every year, North Korea adds another nuclear bomb to its arsenal. And every year, usually in mid-April to coincide with the birthday of the regime’s founder Kim Il-sung, it tests a new, longer-range missile. This year, like most years in fact, the missile exploded shortly after take-off.
But the fact is, at some point — and the consensus is it will be within a few years — North Korea will have an intercontinental ballistic missile that can hit the US mainland with a nuclear bomb.
So in one sense, the administration’s declaration that a new era is dawning is realistic: “strategic patience’’ was possible so long as North Korea was not able to threaten the US. Now that that possibility is on the horizon, working with China to find a solution should indeed be one of the Trump administration’s top foreign policy goals.
China, for its part, has one key requirement: that the Korean peninsula not be unified under Seoul’s control, which could bring the 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea to China’s border.
There are a number of imponderables: How much influence does China actually have over North Korea? How irrational is Kim Jong-un? What is the relationship between Kim and his generals?
And an important consideration for the North: How concerned is it that normalization of its relations with the US, and South Korea, and indeed most of the world, could, by undermining its half-century raison d’être, lead to regime change?
And the deal itself: Considering that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal effectively blackmails South Korea — and China and the US — what might be the minimum that North Korea would demand? And the corollary, Would that be acceptable to South Korea?
And, finally, what would China want from the US in exchange for helping to rein in North Korea?
The key provision of any final accord would involve an agreement by China and the US to guarantee the sovereignty of both Koreas in exchange for a non-nuclear Korean peninsula.
The ultimate goal for China and the US would be for North Korea to become a normal country, open to the world, its economy growing, its trade expanding, its relationship to its southern brethren on a solid footing.
It sounds simple, but North Korea’s years of isolation have made it paranoid. And its paranoia has made it impossible for the US and South Korea to trust it. China, as Trump showed with his wooing of Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, would be the key player. Trump got elected playing up his reputation as a successful businessman, not a politician. If he really wants to prove how a pragmatic businessman can become a successful president in today’s complex world, solving the Korean problem would certainly qualify.
And when you see what’s happened to Trump’s approval rating since he was sworn in — it’s continued to tank — he could use a success.