Trump’s hopeful North Korea approach
Donald Trump will have to give up his hawkish campaign rhetoric and accept the realities of diplomacy. Washington and Beijing must seize this narrow time window to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.
Who will be the new Mr Unpredictable? Photo:Wikimedia/KNE
Donald Trump seems to be obsessed with Twitter, keeping his foreign policy strategy secret and convincing the American people that the “dishonest” media is their real enemy. So all we know about his foreign policy ambitions is through 140 character messages and unconventional press conferences. He tries to portray himself as the strong man who defends American values (defined through the prism of “America First”) by bringing back jobs to the United States. In this sense he is very predictable. But apparently he prefers to ignore the fact that this quest often stands in stark contrast to core American interests - without even mentioning the questionable long-term effects on the labour market. This makes him a very unpredictable international player. The world community has been deeply worried by the new president’s Twitter tirades, the absence of diplomatic conventions and the inconsistent messages he sends out to countries - regardless of whether they are America’s closest allies or adversaries. This also holds true in his approach to North Korea. Even though South Korea isn’t part of TPP, Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the trade agreement will weaken the United States and its allies in the region. Further, one of his core demands to the US’ military allies is that they should pay America for their protection. For Trump this is just another transaction. The success of such a ‘deal’ can only be defined by the financial outcome to the US. Clearly this is a pretty questionable method and completely ignores the bigger context.
So what is the bigger context? And how is Trump failing at recognising it? He sees North Korea as a problem created by China. He claims Beijing could easily put a stop to the North Korean regime and that America has enough economic leverage to force them to do it. He also proposes to include Iran, who he calls North Korea’s closest partner, in some sort of an anti-North Korea alliance. According to Trump, the “horrible deal with Iran” should have included a section on forcing Tehran to deal with Pyongyang. Needless to say that such a deal, which would have also included confiscating frozen Iranian assets in the US, would have been completely unacceptable to the Iranian regime and would have resulted in a nuclear Iran and further escalation in the Middle East. But not according to the author of “The Art of the Deal”. Further, he has also criticised South Korea and Japan on numerous occasions for “ripping off” the United States. He claims they do not compensate their military protectors adequately (“they pay us peanuts”) and benefit hugely from their trade surplus with America. Of course that is not completely true. For example, in 2014 South Korea actually directly reimbursed over 30 percent (and indirectly a lot more) of the cost of the American military presence in the country. These contradictory messages confuse all parties involved. Surely, threatening to withdraw troops from South Korea and outsourcing the problem to China and Iran won’t solve anything.
To understand the full picture it is also crucial to understand Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s positions. Trump fails to acknowledge that it would be simply unacceptable to China to border a country that hosts thousands of American troops. Currently North Korea acts as a buffer between the two countries. China is extremely reluctant to enable a regime change in Pyongyang, fearing it could either lead to reunification with the South (with a pro-US government) or create a more unstable state. This leaves Pyongyang in a unique position where it can afford to be unpredictable because their opponents and “partners” are all predictable.
Trump explaining the North Korea conflict and his approach to diplomacy.
Yet, the election of Donald Trump has changed things significantly (even though the regime actually endorsed him during the campaign). The North Koreans are suddenly unsure about America’s position.
Two recent events - the missile launch and the mysterious assassination of Kim Jong-nam - should be viewed as careful attempts to test the new American president’s reaction (and possibly also test how far Beijing is willing to accept North Korea’s nuclear programme). But the two events are also signs of Kim Jong-un’s intentions of securing his power. The missile launch was timed to coincide with Trump and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s dinner at the president’s resort in Florida. Trump was unable to make any spontaneous comments in the presence of Abe and had to hold a joint press conference. It even forced him to pledge “100% support” to Japan, which of course was a 180 degree turn from the statements he made during the presidential campaign.
The missile launch should also be interpreted as a sign of Pyongyang’s increasing confidence in its military abilities. This was the first time the regime tested a solid fuel missile that can be launched from off-road trucks and potentially also from submarines. While the missile launch doesn’t cross Trump’s red line of a missile that could reach the US, it does signify a new threat that forces Trump to deal with North Korea. Or maybe as Christina Varriale, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), points out, it could have merely been a birthday present for the Supreme Leader. After all it was Kim’s birthday weekend and he has proven his appreciation for bizarre birthday gifts in the past. Remember that time he flew in Dennis Rodman for a game of basketball?
The assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half brother, however, is more difficult to categorise. On the one side, the use of the chemical warfare agent VX (in a foreign major airport!) can be seen as a threat to Pyongyang’s enemies that nuclear weapons aren’t their only options. On the other side, it could have been a signal to the domestic audience that there is no escaping from Kim Jong-un's supreme power. Although this could also be interpreted as the insecurity of an increasingly weak regime. However, the assassination of Kim Jong-nam should also deeply worry China. He was Beijing’s best hope for a reformed North Korea that would abandon its nuclear programme and follow China’s example of economic opening. Kim Jong-un’s decision to assassinate him in a public space doesn’t demonstrate Pyongyang’s willingness to pursue that option.
But is the regime really completely crazy and about to start a nuclear confrontation? There are several signs that this is not the case. The North Korea leadership is well aware of their reputation as a rogue state and an unpredictable player. It is important to understand that North Korea desperately wants to be recognised as a nuclear state. This, however, isn’t just a manifestation of a megalomaniac leader. For Kim Jong-un this is the only way of self-preservation. In other words, a perfectly rational policy. John Everard, the former British ambassador to North Korea, argues that Pyongyang is convinced that their new nuclear capabilities act as a deterrent to the United States. Therefore, they can now (or at least in the very close future) prevent the US from aiding South Korea in case of an attack on the North by threatening to bomb West Coast US cities or annihilating America’s allies' capitals. Yet, Pyongyang is also perfectly aware that bombing South Korea or the US would mean the end of North Korea as it exists today.
You only have to pay US$ 200,000 to witness the "center of the action". And North Korea doesn't even have to hack into government servers thanks to club members live coverage on social media. (Photo: Facebook/Richard DeAgazio)
But maybe Trump’s strategy of outsourcing the problem to China isn’t that outlandish of an idea. Cooperation, sanctions, UN Security Council resolutions and Obama’s “strategic patience” have all proven to be ineffective. Sanctions might have been successful in Iran (even though Trump vehemently denies this) but North Korea is a very different case. North Korea has nothing to lose from sanctions and another UN Security Council resolution can’t really go any further than the recently adopted Resolution 2321. Furthermore, the nuclear programme is incredibly important to the country’s propaganda. Abandoning it in return for better relations with an unpredictable American president would be viewed as foolish by North Korea’s indoctrinated population and would existentially threaten the Kim dynasty. Trump is right to say that China (if you ignore his previous comments on Tehran’s influence on Pyongyang) has unique leverage over North Korea. Trump will have to convince Beijing that a fully nuclearised North Korea is a higher threat to their long-term national interest than a reunified pro-US Korea.
China accounts for roughly 90 percent of North Korea’s trade (which are rumoured to be heavily subsidised) and is the sole supplier of crucial commodities, such as oil and steel. Beijing will have to threaten to cut off all trade links with North Korea and force Pyongyang to chose either the continuation of their nuclear programme or economic aid from their ‘big brother’. Although it is important to note that completely cutting economic ties will primarily hurt the people of North Korea rather than their leaders. This is one of the reasons why China is so reluctant to pursue this strategy. Why would you potentially create a humanitarian crisis if you can’t guarantee it will stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions? It will be difficult to not make exceptions on humanitarian grounds, such as food and oil imports.
China’s recent decision to suspend coal imports from North Korea, which account for 33 percent of all exports (possibly up to 50%, according to North Korea expert Yang Moo-jin), is a promising sign. Even though Beijing argued it was merely a formality based on quotas from the recent UN Security Council resolution, it is clearly hinting China’s willingness to work with Washington in denuclearising North Korea. Pyongyang was quick to criticise Beijing’s decision: ”This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the US”; only highlighting North Korea’s anxious position. It remains unknown whether China’s decision to suspend coal imports was indeed a signal that Beijing is willing to work with the Trump administration on this issue (or maybe just to use this as a token of trust to regain America’s trust) or that the recent missile launch merely underlined the immense risk to regional stability Pyongyang’s nuclear programme has caused. It has strengthened the positions of hardliners in South Korea and Japan and has resulted in the two countries considerably strengthening their military capabilities (including those of US troops). Moreover, a nuclear North Korea would also be able to emancipate itself from its big brother and would only further decrease Beijing’s influence on the Kim regime.
Washington and Beijing must seize this narrow time window to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme. But Trump will have to give up his hawkish campaign rhetoric and accept the realities of diplomacy. His reasoned reaction to the missile launch and Beijing’s decision to put economic pressure on Pyongyang are two welcome developments. Unfortunately, the only certain outcome is that the people of North Korea will suffer most.