Trump versus Kim
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.