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Trump’s North Korea Gamble

There is no question that tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at a turning point in history. The DPRK has warned its regional actors that it could carry out a sixth nuclear strike on any target at any time. The USS Carl Vinson has now cooperated in naval exercise drills with its South Korean and Japanese counterparts in response to a possible North Korean strike.

In a recent interview with CBS News, President Trump discussed the serious threat and China’s response to the DPRK’s heinous activities; “I will tell you, a man that I’ve gotten to like and respect, the president of China, President Xi, I believe, has been putting pressure on him also. But so far, perhaps nothing’s happened and perhaps it has. This was a small missile. This was not a big missile. This was not a nuclear test, which he was expected to do three days ago. We’ll see what happens.” President Trump continued; “I would not be happy. If he does a nuclear test, I will not be happy. And I can tell you also, I don’t believe that the president of China, who is a very respected man, will be happy either.”

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told members of the United Nations Security Council that “the key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side.” The situation with the DPRK is at a critical point to avoid yet another direct confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. Foreign Minister Wang also urged that negotiations and talks are “the only way out.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also made some remarks on the North Korea threat and stated that the United States “will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea, we will not reward their violations of past resolutions, we will not reward their bad behavior with talks.” North Korea has been under United Nations sanctions since 2006, but the council has strengthened sanctions in response to North Korea’s five ballistic missile tests. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida spoke with similar rhetoric to Secretary Tillerson stating that “under the current situation where North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, meaningful dialogue is clearly not possible.”

Unpredictable Trump

In an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg on Monday, President Trump would have met Kim Jong Un if the environment for negotiations was favorable: “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it.” Throughout his first 100 days in office, President Trump seems unpredictable on foreign policy as expected. The North Korea policy from the Trump administration started two months ago with the idea of ‘maximum pressure and engagement.’ The maximum pressure aspect of Trump’s North Korea policy is to halt North Korea’s nuclear activity through sanctions and diplomacy, but does not call for regime change. In addition, the maximum pressure has sent a message to “Pyongyang in the hopes of returning to negotiations to get rid of its growing nuclear arsenal.” This sounds like a policy that could take a long time, but given the fact that President Trump is open to meeting Kim Jong Un is another aspect of Trump’s unpredictability and negotiating skills.

During the same interview with CBS News, President Trump said, “A lot of people don’t like when I say it, but he [Kim Jong Un] was a young man of 26 or 27 when he took over from his father, when his father died. He’s dealing with obviously very tough people, in particular the generals and others. And at a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.” Not many Americans have ever heard an American leader call a North Korean leader a ‘smart cookie’ despite the ongoing tensions. However, outreach needs to be done in a structured way and it is difficult to decipher which way the administration wants to go. Could it take a hawkish approach or a diplomatic approach? This remains quite uncertain.

The first part of Trump’s statement was true that Kim Jong Un came into power at a very young age. The second part is hard to understand because you never hear of an American leader calling a North Korean leader a smart cookie and it is also hard to engage the leader of a rogue state, but this is just not politically correct to say something like this in the Beltway. President Trump has created political space for himself to try and engage Kim Jong Un in a structured context. It could be useful, but given the current geopolitical environment, this unfortunately does not seem possible.

China Must be a Broker

From the Chinese perspective, working with the United States is something new, and let’s be honest, the China-North Korea relationship is not as strong as it used to be during the Cold War. In the west, we view the China-North Korea relationship as the two countries being allies, but it is more complex than this. It is like China being the oldest communist brother and North Korea being the youngest communist brother, but they are not best friends. China and North Korea share a deep historical bond. If you look at the relationship today, President Xi has never met with Kim Jong Un, and he has met the South Korean leader often. The North Koreans also don’t see the Chinese as close allies today even though there are Chinese companies and dependencies on coal and oil. The North Koreans also view the Chinese as treating them with disrespect and the Chinese despise the North Koreans but both sides cannot leave each other.

Trump sent his vice president to the region to reassure U.S. allies. (D. Myles Cullen)

China is trying its best to impose sanctions against North Korea, but Beijing also understands that it is impossible to resolve the issue by simply relying on sanctions. If the United States moved towards heavy sanctions, be it through the United Nations or elsewhere, maybe an oil embargo or toughening up on the seizure of ships, Beijing might not likely go along with it because there is a serious concern within China about how threatening the situation is, especially in Northeast China. The nuclear test range for a small missile is approximately within 300 kilometers away from the Chinese border. So every time there is a nuclear test conducted by North Korea, there is a small earthquake on the Chinese border. So there is obviously concern coming from the Chinese people.

China could go down the sanctions path where it could sanction the North Koreans in terms of strategic commodities if North Korea behaves poorly, but if the Kim Jong-Un government could exercise minimum discipline and behavior to get private markets working, the Chinese would be happy to ensure that North Korea can prosper economically and open up greater avenues to larger six party conversations.

Even though the DPRK economy has grown, the sanctions have not necessarily been effective. However, China has made progress on banning coal imports, it has cracked down on other industries such as oil. China has committed to following UN sanctions and the sanctions are becoming more severe on the North Korean side because China is not accepting a nuclear footing from the DPRK. China wants to see more engagement from the United States and better geopolitical conditions for all the parties involved to draft a final resolution to the problem. Putting a hold on nuclear weapons is another option for China and hopefully, the Chinese can see what the other scenarios are from there.

The relationship between President Xi and President Trump is a close relationship and hopefully, this builds a bridge in U.S.-China relations. This sounds quite encouraging and China can do more to remain patient with North Korea and work more closely with the United States. For the two countries to work together in a coordinated way to leave no room for exploitation from Pyongyang, it shows that despite the Chinese-American tensions on trade wars, or rhetoric on the South China Sea, the United States and China can work on issues that they have in common and one of these issues is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

The Korean Response

The DPRK response is key to negotiations. There has been no movement whatsoever from Pyongyang and the weekend missile test failed. From an ideological standpoint, U.S foreign policy has failed to recognize that different societies are different and different leaders are different. When the U.S president thinks that only a top leader negotiation can de-escalate the tensions, then there is something missing about what is actually going on in Kim Jong-Un’s head. North Korea has become a society that has been cut off from the rest of the world for nearly half a century and it has bred this insularity that is hard for an outsider to understand. One of the things we have to take into consideration is the fact that this state of crisis North Korea has put forward is pretty close to normal life for them.

Kim Jong-Un has pursued the Bjongjin policy which is a program aimed at “developing both the economy and nuclear armaments.” So far, a lot of people hate to admit it, but the plan has worked successfully and there has been a lot of capital moving around in the economy. Also, many experts have pointed out that Kim Jong-Un has made progress on the nuclear front, but when it comes to the market economy, not many people are discussing it. In addition, the international economic sanctions have not been very successful on squeezing the North Korean economy. In South Korea, Moon Jae-In looks likely to win the South Korean election on May 9 and he is very eager to develop a new relationship with the North. Also, Moon Jae-In has been criticizing former President Pak’s decision to close off the Kaesong industrial complex, the transit and industrial zone in the DPRK.

Carrots and Sticks

The problem is not necessarily that the United States does not want to reach out to North Korea, but Pyongyang is just not interested in any talks with the six parties (Russia, South Korea, USA, Japan, and China). The Defense Department has said more often that the THAAD Missile system is now operational and it sets a strong example for the United States using its stick policy in the Korean Peninsula. This, however, is not a very popular move for the people who live in South Korea and China. During the UN Security Council meeting on Friday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi protested the U.S. THAAD deployment, “I want to reiterate that China firmly opposes the deployment of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea…This move has undermined the strategic security of China and other countries in the region, and it has also damaged trust and cooperation among parties to the Korean Peninsula issue.”

China sees this deployment as a step towards making the situation much worse and it does not help the denuclearization of one of the world’s most militarized zones for conflict. The THAAD deployment situation goes beyond the Korean Peninsula, but it raises eyebrows in China and Japan as well. In South Korea, there seems to be increasing concern about this action. The THAAD issue is quite controversial especially with the South Korean election campaigns and over the last week, front-runner Moon Jae-In of the Deobureo Minjudang (Democratic Party) has expanded his lead over Ahn Cheol Soo of the Gungminui Dang (People’s Party). The latest polls have shown that Moon “[is] first in support at 37.3%, followed by Ahn at 20.5%, Hong at 15.8%, left-wing Justice Party candidate Shim Sang-jung at 6.9% and conservative Bareun Party Yoo Seong-min at 4.9%. A Christian Broadcasting System/Real Meter survey on Apr. 27-29 similarly showed Moon at 42.6%, Ahn at 20.9%, Hong at 16.7%, Shim at 7.6%, and Yoo at 5.2%. The numbers suggest Moon has consolidated his position far ahead of the pack, while Ahn and Hong are competing within the margin of error.”

There is also a concern on the North Korean side about its survival, its security, and possibly regime change if all options are on the table. Could it be possible that President Trump could throw a Hail Mary pass on the North Korea situation? Also, we have to take into consideration that the last American leader to visit North Korea was Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 2000, but could a visit by an American leader lower the tone on the peninsula? President Obama did put on the table a possible meeting with Kim Jong Un as a ceiling point for negotiations. What is unusual about the Trump, Kim Jong Un interview is that there could be a top leader negotiation possible without outlining any of the details on proliferation, nuclear arsenals, and strategic patience. Secretary of State Tillerson also stated in the UN Security Council that there will be negotiating on negotiations.”

This THAAD controversy that was pressed on by the United States has boosted Moon Jae-in’s candidacy for the presidency. Moon Jae-In has argued that the next government should review the decision of THAAD deployment from scratch because it does pose some serious problems for the people who live in the region. President Trump asked for South Korea to pay $1 billion for the THAAD system, but how does the average South Korean feel about this? It sounds like they are scratching their heads thinking about how the U.S.-South Korea alliance relationship on commercial, financial, and security ties can maintain a trust for stability in the future. A billion dollars is a small amount of money, but it could cause a burden in the South Korean economy which is struggling right now.

What is the U.S. strategy? The Trump strategy as was said before has been the maximum pressure and engagement policy. Maximum pressure on the North Korean government, but also engagement with the North Korean government. The Trump Administration so far has increased its qualitative pressure using all tools possible on the Kim Jong-Un government to understand that North Korea is cornered and force them to have discussions and negotiations with the other parties and hopefully, there will be compromise on disarmament and denuclearization. There is hope in engagement and pressure because if it can be structured correctly, then negotiations could set in for a carrots and sticks policy that can be withdrawn. There are a range of options for President Trump, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Strategic Patience is Over: Why Now?

Since 1998, the foreign policy of South Korea to the North has been the Sunshine Policy. This policy was designed to soften North Korea’s attitudes towards the South and it called for three main objectives. The first objective was the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The second objective was for South Korea to actively cooperate with the North. And finally, South Korea would not undermine North Korea in any way, whether by political or military action. The Sunshine Policy has been criticized for giving too much and no cost to North Korea. The best way forward is for a new type of Sunshine Policy and to go back to the six party talks so then all the actors can work out a final settlement on the tensions in the Korean Peninsula. In order to execute such a settlement, it will be up to the DPRK to get its economic engine moving to expanding private markets and supplying food aid to the impoverished. If the DPRK can get this right, there could be a possiblity that foreigners could contribute to helping the North Korean people go down the path to prosperity. A new Sunshine Policy approach could also make a case that sanctions do have an impact on the DPRK encouraging it to internationally engage.

A possible way forward could be for the United States and South Korea to stop the naval military exercises in exchange for the DPRK to freeze its nuclear ballistic missile program, but so far, North Korea has not committed to doing this. Unfortunately, this result has not led to negotiations between the parties. This sounds like the right strategy moving forward and the military option should never be the option because it is so easy to start a military war but it is so hard to end it. The North Korea situation is quite different from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, so the only way to resolve this conflict is through diplomacy. And again, the new U.S. policy of maximum pressure and engagement has seen more maximum pressure, but less engagement. The United States and South Korea should suspend their military drills as long as the North Koreans suspend their nuclear program. The problem with this is that Washington might not listen to the maximum pressure and engagement policy, and there needs to be a lot more progress on negotiations especially between Pyongyang and Washington to coordinate on a policy of cooperation to de-escalating the tensions.

In coming weeks all eyes are still on North Korea for more provocations or nuclear tests, which could draw a red line for the Trump Administration. North Korea has to be very cautious about not conducting nuclear tests even though they have been spewing harsh statements against the U.S. The worst case scenario for the tensions in the Korean peninsula is another war. Another Korean war would be catastrophic, and everyone would lose if this scenario were to happen. If diplomacy sets in, and if the North Koreans are willing to come to the table with the other parties such as the U.S, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, then there is hope for a final resolution to the over half a century problem.