Kim and Trump

25.05.18 Publication:

President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel the June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a great diplomatic coup for the young North Korean leader. Chairman Kim has converted his image from one of international pariah into thwarted peace-maker in the space of just a few months. But the even bigger winner is China.

North Korea could hardly have dreamt of a greater success. Having risked pre-emptive US air strikes and endured tight economic sanctions, even from its neighbour and supposed ally China, in the rush to finally develop and demonstrate that it has become a fully capable nuclear-weapons state, the country now holds a sort of moral high ground, for having initiated the idea of a historic bilateral summit that was first accepted and now cancelled by Trump.

No one in East Asia is under any illusion about the fact that Chairman Kim remains a brutal dictator and potential menace to regional peace. But all North Korea’s neighbours – Japan, South Korea, China, Russia – have found his diplomatic strategy much more predictable and even credible than that of the United States.

It was always clear that Chairman Kim’s promises to put denuclearisation on the table had to be taken with a pinch of salt. He was not going to give up a nuclear deterrent, or indeed offensive power, that had taken so much time and effort to develop. But the idea of some form of de-escalation of military tensions, perhaps amid a peace treaty that provided a framework for managing both behaviour and communications, was nevertheless welcome, especially to South Korea but also crucially to China.

The same could not be said of America’s apparent position: a demand for the complete and verifiable dismantling of the nuclear and missile forces. Even if required in a phased manner, this demand lacked credibility, especially following President Trump’s recent withdrawal from the multilateral deal with Iran which had just three years ago led to the suspension of that country’s nuclear programme.

It was therefore reasonable to wonder how President Trump planned to retreat from his demand for full denuclearisation and replace it with something more credible; or, if he intended to insist on it, what action he might take to achieve denuclearisation and regime change if, or rather when, the summit failed to deliver.

That US credibility was further dented by the comments by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence likening North Korea’s situation to that of Libya under the late Colonel Muammar Gadhafi, which prompted the noisy protests from the Kim regime that President Trump has now described in his cancellation letter as “anger and hostility”. The description was fair, but this still left the North Koreans looking like the victims of American hostility rather than perpetrators.

Both of America’s core security-treaty partners – Japan and South Korea – have felt repeatedly bypassed, ignored and vulnerable in the face of President Trump’s decision-making. Moreover, Japan in particular has come during this process to fear American actions more than North Korean ones, which is quite a remarkable outcome. The Japanese mood has not been helped by America’s refusal to grant its steelmakers the exemptions from threatened tariffs that have been won by many other countries.

Where does this all lead? North Korea’s initial response to the cancellation by declaring its continued openness to talks confirms that it feels it is in possession of the moral high ground. The key reaction will, however, be that of China.

Last year, China responded to American pressure by tightening economic controls on its North Korean neighbour. It thereby showed it was willing to play its part to preserve stability in the region. It also gained two visits from Kim Jong-un in the space of less than two months, the North Korean leader’s first trips abroad, which thereby showed that Chairman Kim was willing to pay obeisance to China’s President Xi Jinping and to seek his diplomatic backing.

Now that President Trump has cancelled the summit, the case for China continuing to exert pressure on North Korea has disappeared, at least in Chinese eyes. Now China has an enviable choice: it can use its leverage with North Korea as a bargaining chip with an America which is continuously threatening trade war with the Chinese; or it can open up trade and other economic relations with North Korea, showing Chairman Kim how much his country depends on China for its well-being.

With both the European Union and Japan bristling about their treatment by the Trump administration over trade, North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal, China must feel under little pressure to buckle under to any American demands. It would not welcome US military strikes on North Korea, which must remain a possibility, if a remote one.

But anything short of that counts as a strategic win for China: it has regained a tributary ally, it has shown itself a force for peace and stability, and it has looked relatively reasonable in comparison with the unpredictable and unreasonable Americans. The decline of American influence and the rise of China continues, not just unabated but accelerated.