FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

“They’ll Never Learn” Department: Trump and North Korea

As Donald Trump prepares to meet Xi Jinping, his administration is going down the old road of believing it can pressure China to solve the North Korea nuclear weapons problem—or face a US-initiated trade war.

“Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” he said. As usual, he wouldn’t say how, but he said he was hopeful that China, for which he has “great respect,” would help. “China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don’t it won’t be good for anyone.” Asked what might motivate China to help, Trump said: “I think trade is the incentive. It is all about trade.” And if China refused? Trump said he was “totally” prepared to take unilateral action against Pyongyang.

As was also true under Barack Obama, Trump refuses to understand that as much as North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles rankle the Chinese, they are not going to try to force the North to disarm. Not that China lacks leverage to pressure Pyongyang. But the competing pressures are greater. First, Beijing is just as fearful as all the other parties about how North Korea might react if its back is to the wall. Second, Beijing doesn’t want to be seen as engaging in regime change. Third, helping destabilize North Korea may create an unmanageable refugee crisis. Fourth, North Korea is a strategic buffer for China, which cannot risk having it replaced someday by a US ally.

Fifth, no one knows what Kim Jong-un and his military leaders might do—which weapons they might launch, for starters—if pushed to the wall. I do not consider credible the report concerning a North Korean defector who was deputy ambassador to Great Britain, and who told Lester Holt of NBC that once Kim Jong-un sees “any kind of sign of a tank or an imminent threat from America, then he would use his nuclear weapons with ICBM.” Still, it would be rather imprudent to push Kim to the point where he might take drastic action to save his regime.

Sixth, what was true of Sino-North Vietnamese relations during the Vietnam War may also be true of Sino-North Korean relations: leverage is not the same as control. Thus, the Chinese will only go so far with UN sanctions, knowing they cannot force Pyongyang to do its bidding.

How will Trump react? In a blistering critique of Trump, the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote on April 2: “He is a man so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that it is impossible to know where his presidency will lead or how much damage he will do to our nation.” Among the imponderables the editorial raised was this one: “Will he provoke a confrontation with Iran, North Korea or China?” The Bill Clinton administration struck a deal with Kim Il-sung that led to the Agreed Framework of 1994. Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” failed to prevent North Korea from significantly increasing its inventory of nuclear weapons and missiles. But the tense relationship did not lead to open conflict because everyone in the administration feared the costs and risks. Under Donald Trump, however, we hear nothing about patience or prudence.

US threat options are limited. A US attack on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, military specialists have long agreed, would not be able to eliminate all of them. But it would bring on a North Korean counterattack, resulting in incalculable human and physical damage to North and South Korea alike even if only conventional weapons were employed. Further squeezing North Korea with sanctions has never worked.

Sanctioning additional Chinese firms and banks that do business with North Korea, or providing Japan with new weapons (such as cruise missiles) to deter a North Korean attack, would anger Beijing and further reduce Chinese incentives to distance themselves from Pyongyang.

So that leaves diplomacy, which I have frequently argued is the only realistic option. China will say “no” to Trump on full-court pressure on North Korea, though with an ambiguous promise to “do more” with North Korea. But if Trump is smart, he’ll realize that he has a better chance of solving the North Korea puzzle by nurturing US-China relations. That means returning to the negotiating table, where positive US-China relations can make a difference–specifically, in crafting a deal, “action for action” (such as happened at the Six Party Talks in 2005), that might be palatable to North Korea and put the nuclear and missile issue on ice for so long as the deal works. North Korea’s nuclear weapons probably cannot be eliminated now, but they can be warehoused under international inspection if its security and economic needs are addressed. Time is running out, and it is very doubtful that Trump’s inexperienced team is capable of crafting a creative diplomatic strategy to head off another nuclear crisis with North Korea.

More articles by:

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail