Trump ver­sus Kim

The Korea Times - - OPINION - An­drew Sal­mon An­drew Sal­mon is a Seoul-based re­porter and author. Reach him at an­drewc­salmon@ya­hoo.co.uk.

One leads a hy­per­power suf­fer­ing from eroded con­fi­dence, the other a bas­ket case that is in­creas­ingly stri­dent in global pol­i­tics. One is de­rided as a dunce with min­i­mal po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, the other as a monarch crowned be­fore his time. But both have their fin­gers on po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing power but­tons and nei­ther is ig­nored for long by global news me­dia (or po­lit­i­cal satirists).

So how is the duel between U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shap­ing up?

For­mer U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama warned his suc­ces­sor that his most press­ing for­eign pol­icy chal­lenge would be North Korea. Now, the new ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy re­view is com­plete. Sparks have been fly­ing ever since. Is Trump’s pol­icy of “no more strate­gic pa­tience” win­ning trac­tion?

China holds the key to the North Korean co­nun­drum. Some 80-plus per­cent of North Korean trade crosses its China fron­tier, and the cross-bor­der pipe­line of com­merce, food and fuel is crit­i­cal to North Korea’s vi­a­bil­ity as a state. The prob­lem is that China has for cen­turies been ul­tra-sen­si­tive about its north­east fron­tier. It seeks to main­tain a buf­fer there against the per­ceived threat from demo­cratic Amer­i­cans, South Kore­ans and Ja­panese.

The Great Wall be­gins in China’s north­east. This is where the Manchu con­quest orig­i­nated in the 17th cen­tury, where the Ja­panese in­vaded from in the 1930s, and where the Amer­i­cans ap­proached in au­tumn 1950. The lat­ter ad­vance prompted China’s en­try into the Korean War, where she routed U.S.-led U.N. forces in the penin­sula’s north and re-es­tab­lished Py­ongyang’s sovereignty.

Granted, there were signs that China’s pa­tience with her volatile client state was wear­ing thin be­fore the Don­ald Trump-Xi Jin­ping sum­mit (where, re­port­edly, the two lead­ers hit it off): Bei­jing had re­turned a large ship­ment of North Korean coal, a key Py­ongyang ex­port. But post-sum­mit, there were sur­prise de­vel­op­ments.

A Chi­nese brief lay­ing out a “red line” for an at­tack into North Korea (ra­dioac­tive leak­age from nu­clear tests) was briefly re­leased on­line, then tugged. A state-owned me­dia ed­i­to­rial sug­gested a fuel em­bargo upon North Korea — an easy-to-im­ple­ment, easy-to-cal­i­brate move that could bring Py­ongyang to its knees with­out harm­ing any­one. And a Chi­nese his­to­rian sug­gested that, per­haps, it was time to cease sup­port­ing a prob­lem­atic client state whose in­ter­ests no longer align with China’s.

Now, none of these con­sti­tute much more than vague threats. But the warn­ings sug­gest Trump ca­joled or con­vinced Xi to ap­ply pres­sure. If so, then Trump will — at the early stage of his pres­i­dency — have done more on this front than ei­ther of his two-term pre­de­ces­sors.

Trump’s North Korea strat­egy has not been limited to China over­tures; he has also lever­aged a per­sonal trait.

You don’t need to be a strate­gist to know that the best way to com­mu­ni­cate with bul­lies is from a po­si­tion of strength: Any school­boy who has en­dured a play­ground scrap can im­part that wis­dom. Trump has — I sus­pect de­lib­er­ately — played to a gallery that con­sid­ers him dan­ger­ously un­pre­dictable.

Trump is un­afraid to un­leash hell at short no­tice — as wit­nessed in his de­ploy­ment of high-pro­file mil­i­tary as­sets against Syria and Afghanistan in the run-up to his North Korea con­fronta­tion.

More­over, the world was trans­fixed when Trump warned of a U.S. “ar­mada” ap­proach­ing Korean waters. It was widely as­sumed — in­clud­ing, per­haps, in North Korea, which lacks re­con­nais­sance satel­lites and long-range spy air­craft — that Amer­ica was, in­deed, on the warpath. So the world was flum­moxed when it was later re­vealed that the bat­tle group was, in fact, nowhere near Korea.

De­spite quail­ing among Trump crit­ics, U.S. “cred­i­bil­ity” has not been cor­roded. U.S. naval as­sets still ex­ist, and nei­ther Seoul nor Tokyo com­plained, sug­gest­ing they were qui­etly in the know. How­ever, U.S. un­pre­dictabil­ity has been up­graded — and ever since Sun Tzu, sur­prise and dis­in­for­ma­tion have been prized mil­i­tary tac­tics.

Did Trump’s hair trig­ger make Kim hes­i­tate to un­der­take his sixth nu­clear test? Did Trump’s warn­ings that if Bei­jing does not deal with Py­ongyang, then Wash­ing­ton will, prompt Bei­jing’s re­cent scare tac­tics?

This is un­know­able at present. But thus far, Trump’s moves to­ward North Korea do not in­di­cate a gib­ber­ing dolt on for­eign pol­icy is­sues. Rather, they in­di­cate an ex­panded strate­gic/diplo­matic tool­box, cre­atively ap­plied.

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