What Hath Trump Wrought in North Korea?
The results of President Trump’s historic meeting with Kim Jong Un continue to play out. Will Trump’s gamble pay off? Did he get played, like presidents before him? The Stream asked Asia expert Steven Mosher, the man who exposed China’s bloody One Child policy. He’s also the author of the powerful new book Bully of Asia, which exposes China’s neo-fascist ideology and expansionist intentions.
What did you think of President Trump’s summit meeting with Kim Jong Un? Did it turn out differently than you expected?
The Singapore Summit marked the first time a sitting American President and a North Korean dictator had met face to face. That it took place at all is a diplomatic triumph, and a tribute to Trump’s skill as a strategist.
In the months leading up to the Summit, Trump got Kim Jong Un’s attention. He’d gotten the world to sanction his rogue regime. He’d even harangued North Korea’s closest ally, China, into going along. The result was that Kim not only came to Singapore, but he came to Singapore as a supplicant.
I once wrote a couple of speeches for President Reagan. People called him “The Great Communicator.” Trump’s skills as a wordsmith stand underappreciated, to say the least. But in his own way, this president is a genius at getting his message through to its intended recipient.
Bear in mind that Kim Jong Un had never before been addressed in the harsh terms that Trump used. Anyone who did address him in such Trumpian terms would have wound up as dog food, as his uncle reportedly did.
Instead, as a princeling of the hereditary dynasty founded by his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, grandson Kim was coddled and cosseted from birth. Fawned over by everyone he met. Elevated upon the death of his father, he has lived as a virtual deity in North Korea. The state-controlled press has even suggested that he is “a great person born of heaven.” Pretty heady stuff for the pudgy, 34-year-old dictator.
North Korea escalated its threatening rhetoric and actions last year. So Trump sensed that blunt talk was exactly what “Little Rocket Man” needed to hear. So he responded to Kim’s taunts and bluster in kind. Among other things, he said that “my nuclear button is bigger than your nuclear button,” and threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on Kim’s half kingdom.
The pundits predicted disaster, but Kim got the message. And the sight of not one, but three, carrier battle groups on maneuvers off the North Korean coast helped to drive that message home: “If you continue threatening to attack the United States, you will wake up one morning to find your nuclear and missile facilities a smoldering ruin.”
Trump’s tough talk succeeded in concentrating Kim’s mind. Thirty years of diplomatic palaver, over three successive presidential administrations, didn’t. Shortly after that the negotiations began in earnest.
The second thing Trump did was wall off North Korea from world trade. Last November, he declared the regime to be a state sponsor of terrorism, and a month later convinced the United Nations Security Council to impose its toughest sanctions ever on Pyongyang.
Finally, Kim indicated to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he was willing to de-nuclearize. Then Trump took the politically risky but courageous step of sitting down personally with the dictator of a terrorist state to see if a deal could be worked out.
Did Trump “Legitimize” a Dictator?
What do you say to those NeverTrump conservatives who complained that Trump legitimized Jong Un. That Trump even flattered him with that “peace film” the White House produced?
NeverTrumpers are, by definition, never satisfied with anything the President does. The same people would have celebrated if Obama, Clinton or Bush had sat down with the North Korean dictator. Now they’ve made a dizzying about-face and are criticizing Trump for “legitimizing” him. Mindless anti-Trump mania — which they share with the far Left — seems to drive all rational thought from the mind.
A reasonable person would conclude that, whatever happens from this point forward, we are farther along in our engagement with North Korea than we have ever been before. That itself is a diplomatic success.
The key moment in Singapore was a “principals only” meeting. Only the two decision makers, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, were present. In that meeting, Kim Jong Un agreed to the immediate and verifiable de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
There are only two possible outcomes from this point forward. North Korea will either de-nuclearize, or it will not. In the first case, President Trump would have achieved the biggest diplomatic triumph of the 21stcentury. In the second case, Trump will decide that Little Rocket Man is trying to deceive him. Then there will be serious consequences.
One thing is certain. Trump will never enter into the kind of “deal” with North Korea that Obama, desperate for a diplomatic triumph to seal his presidency, entered into with Iran. Trump is not one to appease dictators.
What Game Is China Playing?
You wrote in Bully of Asia that China is the overwhelming security threat to the U.S. going forward. What role is China playing in our negotiations with North Korea?
I think it is apparent that China is playing both sides for its own advantage. On the one hand, it is trying to preserve its historic alliance with North Korea. On the other, it is trying not to anger the Trump administration by openly flouting the U.N. sanctions.
Trump has worked hard to wall off North Korea from world trade. As I just mentioned, last November he convinced the world to impose tough sanctions on North Korea. That was the easy part.
The hard part was getting North Korea’s principal trading partner — China — to actually abide by the sanctions. In response to an earlier round of sanctions, truck and rail traffic across the China-North Korean border had actually begun to pick up. “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter,” Trump tweeted on July 5, 2017. “So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!”
The President had to call out China for cheating again when satellite surveillance showed Chinese ships transferring oil to North Korea vessels at sea. “Caught RED HANDED,” Trump tweeted on December 28, 2017. “Very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea. There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!”
After the Summit, in anticipation of the lifting of the sanctions, Chinese businesses began to explore trade deals with North Korea. Washington protested, and once again Beijing had to pull back.
It is Trump’s dogged persistence that has choked off Kim’s lifeline to China. Xi Jinping’s regime has grudgingly watched from the sidelines as the sanctions began to take a real bite out of the North Korean economy. This, probably more than any other single action, helped to bring Kim to the negotiating table.
Does China want to see North Korea denuclearized? What final outcomes would it a) want, b) settle for or c) act to prevent?
China does not want North Korea to provoke a conflict with the United States at the present time. Such a conflict would force it to engage in a conflict with the U.S. and its allies. China is ill-equipped to win. Or to abandon — and possibly lose — its client state altogether. Is the de-nuclearization of North Korea the price China must pay for another twenty years of peace? Then it will pressure Pyongyang to do so.
This is why Kim Jong Un, who for many years after taking power in 2011 did not venture beyond the borders of his hermit kingdom, has now visited his chief international patron (and fellow president for life), Chinese President Xi Jinping, several times.
What did they talk about?
According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Xi talked to Kim about the ongoing power struggle between the U.S. and China, and what it means in the context of something called “Project 2035.” Project 2035 is a grand scheme for building China into a “great modern socialist country” by the year 2035. Announced at last October’s National Party Congress, its goal is a China that is stronger in both economic and military terms than the United States.
Why would Xi share his “China Dream” of one day becoming the world’s dominant power with Kim? Perhaps to remind him that at the present time, in the face of renewed U.S. confidence, economic growth and military resolve, it is better to be conciliatory with Trump. “I’m playing the long game,” he may have suggested to Kim. “You should too.”
Kim Jong Un came to Singapore as a supplicant.
Just two years ago, the Chinese economic juggernaut seemed unstoppable. Xi Jinping seemed a lock to achieve his China Dream, which is to say dominating the high-tech industries — and global markets — of the future. The Twenty-First Century would belong to China.
Then the Great Disrupter arrived on the scene. Only 500-plus days into the Trump administration, the American economy is rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the over-regulation and over-taxation that had threatened to bury it. China’s economic growth, on the other hand, is slowing under the burden of an aging population, misguided investment, massive corruption and excessive debt.
So, yes, I believe that China is — ever so gently — pressuring Pyongyang to reach an accommodation with the U.S. over its nukes.
Will North Korea Give Up Nukes?
Do you think there is any way North Korea will in fact keep to its deal with the U.S.? What would derail it? What if anything can the U.S. do to hold NK faithful to the deal?
Will Kim give up his nukes? It will be done quickly or not at all. Secretary of State Pompeo is asking for a complete list of all nuclear, biological, chemical and ballistic missile sites. If Kim intends to keep his promise, he will turn over this list. If he is not, he will stall or, what is worse, turn over a partial list.
A partial list would indicate that Kim intends to try and deceive the United States. A complete list will, when verified by CIA analysts, indicate that he intends to cooperate.
AP is reporting on this. Reports have appeared in the Washington Post and elsewhere citing unnamed U.S. intelligence officials who have concluded that North Korea does not intend to fully surrender its nuclear stockpile. They say that evidence collected since the June 12 summit in Singapore points to preparations to deceive the U.S. about the number of nuclear warheads in North Korea’s arsenal as well as the existence of undisclosed facilities used to make fissile material for nuclear bombs.
I believe the Trump administration orchestrated these reports, and for one purpose: To let Kim know that the U.S. is watching his every action. They are intended to dissuade him from trying to cheat.
Again, I think we will know very quickly if Pyongyang is serious. If they are, we have the ability to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear, biological, chemical and ballistic missile programs within a year or two. We’ve done it before, for example in Ukraine.
The Trump Difference
Do you think Trump’s approach to North Korea differs substantively from previous administrations’? Has he figured out Jong Un’s PIN number? Or is the President being played, as his predecessors were?
Trump’s approach to North Korea is radically different than any of his predecessors’. Clinton and Bush rewarded Pyongyang in the hope of bribing the Kim dynasty into good behavior. Rewarding bad behavior never works, as every parent alive can testify.
Then we had the interminable “six party talks,” which began in 2004 and went on for the better part of a decade. Spoilers like China and Russia ensured that these endless rounds of negotiations produced no results — other than to buy time for North Korea to build and test more nukes and missiles.
Trump, on the other hand, has imposed punishing sanctions on Pyongyang. He has sidelined Beijing, a spoiler in past negotiations. He has made it clear to all concerned that the sanctions will not be lifted unless and until North Korea denuclearizes. Finally, the President, supported by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, knows exactly who and what he is dealing with.
That is why the U.S. has the upper hand in these negotiations.
As for Kim Jong Un, if he hasn’t yet figured out that he is not dealing with a typical American president, then he is in for a very unpleasant surprise. President Trump does not like being played.
Will Peace Prevail?
What do you see as the likeliest outcome in North Korea? Disarmament, followed by a cold peace with the South? War with the West? A collapse of the regime? Absorption by China?
I think that Trump has set the stage over the previous year and a half for the successful denuclearization of North Korea. He has, after all, made three things crystal clear to Kim: I am just as tough as you are, if not tougher. I can hurt you a lot worse than you can hurt me. And, finally, if you give up your nukes, I can make your life a lot easier. You can stay in power, your economy can develop and your people will be far better off.
Kim’s other options are very limited. Failing denuclearization, the sanctions noose will continue to tighten, and will eventually cause the collapse of the regime. A preemptive strike against the South would only accelerate this process. Not only would he be signing his own death warrant, he would be all but inviting his giant neighbor to the north to absorb his half kingdom. As a Korean patriot, whose police forcibly abort Korean women who return from China pregnant by Chinese men, this would not be an attractive prospect.
This is why I believe that Donald J. Trump may well have brought Kim Jong Un to heel.
Call it Queens diplomacy.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order.