If Donald Trump can keep his nerve, he will soon have consigned the North Korean nuclear farce to history – and in doing so will have done much to change the narrative of his hitherto faltering presidency.
It is his Cuban-missile-crisis moment. Firmness and level-headedness are necessary in equal measure. And a victory will be all the sweeter for the fact that so many of his denigrators in the Washington establishment – not just the press and the Democratic Party but countless fakes and fair-weather friends in the Republican Party – are so obviously hoping he will fail.
The news overnight is helpful. A North Korean test rocket blew up over the port city of Sinpo shortly after launch. The embarrassment for North Korea’s tubby leader Kim Jong-un is massive – and it is hardly alleviated by the fact that, as the London Telegraph has pointed out, there is a distinct possibility that one or more foreign military powers hacked into the launch to ensure its failure. That inference has been echoed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary. Speaking to the BBC, he commented: “It could have failed because the system is not competent enough to make it work, but there is a very strong belief that the US through cyber methods has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests and making them fail.”
Rifkind could have added that Japan and South Korea, where many of the chips in the North Korean rocket were probably made, may also have played a part in the outcome.
The biggest danger now is that Trump will lose interest and leave the job unfinished. It is crucial that he continue to hold Kim’s feet to the fire. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions need to be ended promptly and decisively. Why? Because, as the world’s knitters know to their advantage, “a stitch in time saves nine” – it is better to fix a problem when it is small than to wait and let it get out of hand. While it is highly unlikely that Kim will anytime soon enjoy the ability to drop a nuclear bomb on the United States (or even Japan or South Korea), it is conceivable that at some stage he might. And in the meantime his bluffing will prove increasingly unnerving for an already ridiculously pusillanimous Washington establishment.
A second reason why this should top Trump’s agenda is that the North Korean nuclear distraction has long had unwelcome ramifications way beyond military policy. Repeatedly since the Clinton era, it has cramped Washington’s style on international trade, for instance. And trade, of course, is absolutely central to the new administration’s program.
It is fair to say that all the more important East Asian nations have a vested interest in exaggerating the North Korean threat. The more terrifying North Korea is made to appear, the more desperately Washington will seek out advice and help from China, Japan, and South Korea. That tends to ensure that trade talks with these mercantilist nations are consigned to the backburner.
Moreover at times of tension, Pentagon officials inevitably take charge. As the East Asians have gleefully realized for generations, the Pentagon is a remarkably soft touch on trade, and in return for the merest hortatory support for its military objectives will pull the rug from under the most carefully conceived plans drawn up elsewhere in Washington to get East Asia to open up.
The key to Trump’s strategy is China – or at least it should be. By propping up North Korea, China is heavily complicit in the present standoff. It is past time China was called to account. After all North Korea has long since become a pariah nation. This is obvious in the fact that it has a long record of reneging on commitments to abandon its nuclear program. In many ways an even bigger concern is the gratuitously outrageous rhetoric North Korean leaders have long resorted to in threatening South Korea, Japan and, of course, the United States. If Beijing persists in an alliance with such a nation, what does that say about China’s wish to remain a member in good standing of the world community?
It is hard to exaggerate how helpful Beijing could be to the cause of commonsense. At last count China supplied more than 76 percent of all North Korea’s imports and bought more than 75 percent of its exports. North Korean is heavily dependent on China for, among other vital supplies, oil. Its moribund industrial sector would grind to a halt without copious supplies of spare parts and indeed entire machines sourced from China or at least through China.
Of course, the conventional American view is that any attempt to read the Riot Act to Pyongyang will lead inevitably to Armageddon. While this version serves the interests of those who want to perpetuate the North Korean standoff, it is not based on verifiable facts.
All those suggestions that Kim Jong-un is a seriously irrational – even suicidal – opponent seem particularly off-base. While they cannot be directly falsified, it is surely clear that to run so much as a hamburger stall requires a certain grip on reality. We are entitled to assume that anyone who manages to sit atop any nation – even one as dysfunctional as North Korea and even if only in a titular capacity – is in possession of some limited rationality. A reasonable inference is that though Kim’s leadership skills probably fall far short of his grand-father’s – and even perhaps his father’s – he is endowed with a normal survival instinct, with all that entails in terms of going along and getting along. In particular he probably realizes that if he is holding a weak hand and his bluff is called, he should fold.
All Kim needs to do is show that he is serious about shutting down his nuclear program. In return, sanctions would be gradually lifted. China would be there as honest broker to ensure that Washington honored its side of the deal.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony (New York: St. Martin’s Press).