The ten minutes that changed Trump’s mind
Trump isn’t a normal president. His unpredictability could prompt Beijing to tighten its act on Pyongyang. This might turn out to be a real asset in the conflict in the sense that it could convince Beijing to abandon tolerating Kim Jong-un’s erratic behaviour.
Kim Jong-un inspecting experimental (!?) wheat. Photo: North Korean government/http://kimjongunlookingatthings.tumblr.com)
In an interview just a few days before Xi Jinping visited Washington Donald Trump explained that “China will either help us with North Korea, or they won’t”. He continued, “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be very good for anyone”. However, things have changed since. After the visit of his Chinese counterpart Trump admitted that “after listening for 10 minutes, I realised it's not so easy”.
This should be understood as a 180 degree turn from Trump’s earlier statements on the Korean peninsula, such as describing South Korea’s protection as a transactional deal, threatening North Korea with a preemptive strike or outsourcing the entire problem to China.
In an earlier article I argued that Trump’s un-ideological foreign policy outlook could result in a Sino-American solution before North Korea becomes a fully militarised power. However, this would require concessions on both sides, which neither seemed to be willing to make before they met in the United States in the beginning of the month. The statements both leaders made after Jinping’s visit show that Trump is serious about solving the conflict multilaterally (i.e. peacefully) and has understood the devastating consequences unilateral military action by the US might result in. This was also confirmed by US vice president Mike Pence’s recent assurances to their Asian allies during talks in Seoul and Tokyo. While Trump told Pyongyang it has “gotta behave”, Pence said the “era of strategic patience is over”. Yet Beijing is still hesitant whether the 10 minutes have really convinced Trump to not seek an “easy” solution with a preemptive strike.
North Korean diplomats are becoming increasingly frustrated with Washington’s mixed messages. As an unpredictable foreign policy actor, they are used to predictable governments in Washington and Beijing where they can afford a certain amount of manoeuvring. The messages top officials are now sending show how serious the situation is. The foreign vice-foreign minister, Han Song-ryol, told the BBC: "We'll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis". His statement was made only shortly after Pyongyang had tested (which failed) another missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead during Pence’s visit to Seoul. North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, Kim In-ryong, criticised the increased hostile rhetoric as well as the deployment of a US aircraft carrier to the region (which turned out to be sailing in the wrong direction). He warned that the country is “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US”.
Even though North Korea actually endorsed Trump during the electoral campaign, he is becoming increasingly dangerous to the regime. Kim Jong-un views nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee North Korean sovereignty. In other words, a deterrent to the United States. After all Kim’s ambitions aren’t expansionist but rather self-preservation. He is very well aware that attacking the South would mean the end of the North Korea as we know it today. North Korean diplomats and officials warning America of an “all out war” should be understood as backing up their willingness to defend their country at any price. Trump’s recent asserting that “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” is not making the regime less worried.
Unlike many other dictators, the 33 year old Kim doesn’t have any friends where he could easily seek asylum. His only option is to remain the supreme leader of North Korea and to defend the status quo. In this context, despite the international isolation, building a nuclear arsenal is a perfectly rational policy. This also includes the regime warning its adversaries that they are actually committed to defending their country and responding to any military action with an “all out war”. Considering that the centre of Seoul, one of the largest cities in Asia, is only 40 km far away from the North Korean border, Kim could cause enough damage with conventional weapons to act as deterrent to the United States. Developing nuclear weapons that could reach east coast US cities would only increase his position.
None of the powers involved in the conflict are actually interested in a war. The only real danger is that one of the parties involved misinterprets something that could lead to a military escalation of the situation. The main problem is that almost all talks with the North have come to a halt. Even the Chinese, who are still delivering 90% of the imports (especially energy and food), have never had this tense relations with the Kim regime. North Korea’s ambitions to push through with its nuclear programme are also frustrating Beijing. However, it also has an interest in maintaining a puffer state between the US ally South Korea and its own border. They prefer a somewhat controllable lunatic dictator to bordering a country with American troops or a failed state in civil war with a refugee crisis. In addition, Beijing wants to prove to potential allies in the region that they can rely on Chinese partnership. Yet the current status quo is a huge destabilising factor and not a long-term solution.
Both sides have to refrain from further provocations to prevent a military escalation of the situation. Only then can talks continue and a peaceful solution found. Under a normal American president this would probably result in a status quo where Kim Jong-un can afford a certain amount of unpredictability and possibly also a limited amount of nuclear weapons. However, Trump isn’t a normal presidency. His unpredictability could prompt Beijing to tighten its act on Pyongyang. America’s recent bombardment on a Syrian government army airport after “beautiful babies” were attacked with chemical weapons, highlighted the fact that Trump is willing to interfere in one of today’s most complicated civil wars. While the effects on the Assad regime were more than questionable, it has left many worried in China. Trump’s unpredictability and lack of foreign policy expertise might be a real asset in this conflict in the sense that it could convince Beijing to abandon tolerating Kim Jong-un’s erratic behaviour. Beijing might fear that the unexperienced president could strike North Korea, destabilising the entire region or prompting a war (in the worst case even a world war). To avoid this China could choose to change its North Korea policy. This wouldn’t necessary result in regime change, as Beijing would avoid appearing to be bullied by Trump. Yet a contained and denuclearised North Korea is definitely the better option out of a bunch of worst case scenarios. The meeting between the two leaders hinted at a common agreement that something has to change. The ten minutes it took Trump to be convinced that the situation is way more complex than he had previously thought should at the least help deescalating the conflict in the short-term. Or hopefully even bring about a long-term solution that is acceptable to all parties involved.