3 April 2018

Trump’s North Korea strategy appears to be working


For all his capacity to surprise politicians and commentators, Donald Trump has done little in office which could be called truly original.

Since his ascent to the presidency, Trump has shepherded little significant domestic legislation through Congress, and his foreign policy could hardly be considered revelatory.

Despite promising to smash ISIS within 30 days of taking office, Trump largely followed the policies put in place by his predecessor. Trump even employed the same personnel, for example, in the form of Brett McGurk.

Where he has deviated from precedent, Trump’s foreign policy has been met with strident, and sometimes histrionic, criticism. His declaration that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” was greeted with deserved ridicule.

The hysteria following his nomination of the hawkish John Bolton to replace General H. R. McMaster as the president’s national security advisor was notably overblown, however.

How that appointment was covered echoes the tone employed to talk about Trump’s policy towards North Korea – a state, and a crisis, on which Bolton’s views are less than universally-held.

Observers have, with remarkable uniformity, been joking, and hyperventilating, about the possibility of nuclear war between America and North Korea for as long as Trump has been president.

Trump has increased American pressure on North Korea, making war seem possible and attempting to enlist China – an essential supporter of the Kim regime and the country which shares the longest border with North Korea – to rein in its southern neighbour.

This approach appears, unexpectedly, to have borne fruit.

Remarkably, Trump, a man who could hardly be described as “diplomatic”, announced last month that he would be willing to meet Kim to negotiate a solution to the crisis between their two countries.

This, at least, was something unique to Trump, something distinctive. Though Barack Obama had said he was willing to meet with Kim’s predecessor and father, Kim Jong-il, he had not done so. And though the North Koreans have extended invitations to foreign leaders before, they do not often play the host, nor do North Korea’s leaders, typically, travel all that widely abroad.

Trump’s critics immediately suggested that, given the president’s impressionable nature, he would leave any meeting with Kim extolling the workers’ state and suggesting that Kim was not a bad guy, really, but rather suffered from a poor image propagated by the fake news media.

Though none could deny the significance of what was on the horizon – what Trump’s apparent willingness to meet with the North Korean leader set in train. Or not for a while.

But then something happened which seemed to challenge the uniqueness of what the White House had agreed to do.

After much speculation, Kim appeared in China, holding meetings with the country’s president, Xi Jinping, last week.

Kim’s visit to China could be read in two ways.

The first is necessarily negative. It suggests that Kim’s appearance in China was a blow to American diplomacy and the policy of America’s president.

This reading holds that Trump has, in effect, been usurped and humiliated. The significance of his future meeting with Kim has been undermined.

Instead of parleying with the United States having been backed into a corner by American pressure, the North Korean leader was able not only to reaffirm his country’s strong ties to China, but also to undercut the uniqueness of Trump’s meeting with Kim.

In part, this is the line which has been taken by critical portions of the US media.

But there is an alternative view.

The second option is that, since the Americans always intended to use China to pressure North Korea, the visit fits with the US strategy pursued by the Trump administration.

This view sees everything that has come since – the initial diplomatic opening and every attempt by North Korea to negotiate with other nations – as a positive result of the US exerting pressure on North Korea while prompting it to engage with its northern neighbour and others.

In short, it places the credit for all talks involving the North Korean leader at the feet of the American administration.

It is too soon to say whether either interpretation is correct. The meeting between Xi and Kim was formal, presented according to the tradition of diplomacy between the two countries. Little appears to have changed in the approach of either, at least not publicly.

But the second option gives rise to a positive possibility – the chance of more diplomatic approaches, in which North Korea engages with its neighbours and attempts to prevent the United States seeing its isolation as intransigence.

This potentially sets the stage for a truly significant tête-à-tête between Kim and Trump. If this allows for a situation in which North Korea no longer threatens nearby countries with nuclear annihilation, it might represent a truly original achievement for an American president who, to date, cannot claim anything approaching that description.

James Snell is a British writer whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect and History Today.