Trump does not nibble, he leaps, to high ground or low. North Korea is an issue ripe for a Trump leap. Otherwise, America, naive about disarmament, will end up reliving Nixon’s nightmare of ‘a pitiful, helpless giant’.
For decades the US has offered inducements and big money for Pyongyang to cancel its pursuit of nukes. Unilateral removal of US nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. Yearly shipments of heavy fuel to Pyongyang for most of the 1990s. The South’s gift of Kaesong Industrial Complex to the North in 2003. Removal of North Korea from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008. Endless attempts, and Kim celebrated a juicy bounce from Trump’s summit in Singapore. That bounce is over.
Recall, none of the well-meaning pre-Trump steps worked. North Korea is the ‘most sanctioned’ country on earth, Obama said in 2015. Yet he soldiered on with sanctions. Even Trump’s early tougher sanctions only turned Kim into a smiling clown in a new suit and loosened his grip on the trigger. I believe Pompeo and Bolton realise this. Politics in Pyongyang is rehearsed theatre and the Korean Communists are consummate actors.
Bombs and missiles are all Kim has – except for one devastating card. Kim, like his father and grandfather, dislikes and resents China. This card is Kim’s and Trump’s to play. Few former officials in Pyongyang escape to the South but all who do speak about resenting China (which occupied Korea for 900 years, 800 plus years more than Japan did from 1905-1945). The most senior defector ever from North Korea, Hwang Jang-yop, says Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, who ruled for a decade, ‘hated China’. Kim Jong-il purged his regime of its top China sympathisers; like his father, Kim Il-sung, he felt no warmth for Beijing. This explains Xi’s desperate efforts to pull young Kim into line pre-Singapore and since.
First easy step for the West is to bury de-nuclearisation as a failure, like disarmament pledges ever since the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928 (signed by the Emperor of Japan just before Tokyo attacked half of Asia, including us).
Second step is to brandish the non-violent weapon of geopolitics. The toxicity of China-North Korea relations allows Trump to make Kim a virtual ally. Some doves correctly say Pyongyang must be offered value to turn the page in Korea. Kissinger has preached this principle for decades. He and Nixon in 1972 offered Mao the crown jewels of balance against Moscow, and what a reward we all reaped. Their move was based on interests, not values. Beijing had just called Nixon a ‘God of Plague and War’, but Nixon disregarded the nasty words and trusted geopolitics. Everything changed. Soon Kissinger sat down to share US maps with Zhou Enlai that showed Russian troops amassed on China’s borders.
Today, we should offer Pyongyang a prize, not just demand our prize. We should beg China for nothing (after forty years of begging Beijing’s ‘help’ on Korea). Rather we shock Beijing by ending a status quo it likes, as Nixon shocked Moscow in 1972. Trump does a deal with Kim that jumps over both South Korea and China. An open society reveals history. Neither China nor North Korea are open societies; truth lies beyond high walls. The Wall Street Journal in 2015 took a mike to Chinese streets and asked strollers what North Korea brings to mind. ‘Kim,’ said one Chinese. ‘He’s very fat, but people living in North Korea don’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. They’re also trying to build hydrogen bombs.’ A girl was asked her impressions of Kim. ‘He’s definitely eaten too much delicious food. He’s also cruel in political battles and kills people.’
Sinologists say well-informed Xi knows North Korea is a miserable failure. But Chinese dynastic tradition disregarded moral factors when ensuring the survival of a useful neighbour. China’s public clichés preserve a status quo that allows Kim to develop nukes, driving Japan and the US crazy, and wards off the collapse of North Korea. Beijing would tremble should Seoul become the democratic capital of a unified Korea.
Running up to the Singapore high-wire act, Kim met Xi on Chinese soil at Chinese invitation. This was remarkable. The silence between Xi and Kim had been deafening for years. Neither had met the other until the handshake in Beijing on 27 March, 2018. Yet here are allies ‘as close as lips and teeth’, with Kim’s realm five times closer to Beijing than is Tibet. Before the March summit neither leader had glimpsed the other’s country.
Unprecedented, a second invite came from Xi five weeks later. Kim no doubt felt he must accept. He flew (not done by the Kim dynasty) to sit tensely at the beach in the port of Dalian with an anxious Xi on 7 May. Kim said to Xi that as threats recede ‘there’s no need for the DPRK to be a nuclear state.’ I think Kim may have meant it. His need for costly nukes would fall away if the US was a friend. As a friend, Washington gives Pyongyang the distance from China it longs for. And we shock China with the spectacle of US and North Korea on the same page. As North Korea and the US become virtual allies, Kim’s eyes gleam at reduction in Chinese domination plus prosperity absent for half a century. Kim, 30 years younger than Xi, loved the CDs, sneakers, and sweat pants (he was thinner then) at school in Switzerland. Now he would behold Pyongyang’s once-bleak stores full of consumer products from US investment, and win a respect his predecessors never knew from a sad populace.
In Dalian, both Xi and Kim said holding two summits in 40 days proved ‘the great importance of the relationship.’ Excuse me! What then does the failure to have a single summit in the previous seven years ‘prove’? It spoke a terrible freeze between two countries with no other allies, closer to each other than Melbourne and Brisbane, with only two small rivers between them.
The era of bombs and missiles shaping East Asia can be over. American and Australian business can fuel a new North Korea. Soon regime change would come in the best way – Seoul and Pyongyang would merge in a reunified Korea.
The ultimate fruit of geopolitical change will be reunification, the only true solution to the menace of Nukes-Only North Korea. ‘Isn’t One Korea just as legitimate as One China?’ I ask Chinese friends. Seldom comes an answer. If Trump can deliver a One Korea he will have a triumph like Bush snr’s triumph of a joined Germany. Japan would pay the bills. The US would keep a residual military force in Korea. China would have the chance to bid with Russia, Japan and the US for influence on the new Korea.
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