Asia Times, by Angelo M. Codevilla, June 3, 2018:
When President Donald Trump canceled the projected June 12 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on May 24, he seemed to have stepped out of the classic diplomatic trap into which it seemed he had fallen. But by May 27 he seemed to step right back in it. Regardless of how this venture turns out, understanding this trap, and how North Korea has used it, is essential.
Any government subject to public opinion that commits to a negotiation with an authoritarian one with any degree of optimism thereby certifies the other party’s legitimacy and raises expectations among its own people. It acquires an interest in protecting its own judgment about the other party’s legitimacy and intentions. Hence, it becomes vulnerable to the other’s pressure to make concessions to keep the negotiations going lest their failure impeach that judgment and those who made it. By paying for continuing negotiations with unrequited concessions, the democratic side becomes complicit in creating illusions of progress. Falling into such traps is a hallmark of the US foreign policy establishment, whose representatives were Trump’s principal counselors at the time he committed to the meeting.
It is of scarce relevance whether Trump canceled the summit because he realized that agreeing to it had been a mistake, or because Mike Pompeo had replaced Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and John Bolton Replaced H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, or whether he withdrew from the meeting and then resumed interest in it as a negotiating ploy. Regardless of reasons, Trump stepped into a diplomatic trap that is anything but a novelty.
Rather, Kim’s trap (more below about the 2018 version’s peculiarities) is a variation of North Korea’s standard approach to America, practiced successfully time and again since 1985, which must be seen in the larger context of US foreign relations in Asia. The focus of these relations is China – not North Korea.
It has ever been so. In 1950-53, North Korea was not the problem – and insofar as it was, it was dealt with quickly. What caused America’s preponderant military force to produce stalemate and armistice in Korea was discord among American policymakers – specifically within the Democratic Party – about China (and the Soviet Union). This discord, thereafter ingrained in the US foreign policy establishment, eventually made it possible for today’s North Korean regime to threaten America with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
Today as ever, North Korea is what it is and does what it does because China makes it possible. China has gained is gaining, and expects to gain more from what North Korea has done and is doing.
Today as in 1950, the main objective of China’s foreign policy is to remove US political-military influence from the Western Pacific. The northern sector of that policy has two components that exist in tension with one another, which North Korea serves as a pawn. 1) The Kim regime, by showing that the US cannot protect itself or anybody else from North Korea’s missiles and nukes, makes it possible for China to present itself to South Korea and Japan as the only party capable of protecting them. 2) North Korea’s existence as a Damocles’ sword over peaceful, prosperous South Korea lets China present itself to South Koreans as the only force capable of realizing their fondest hopes for “sunshine,” peace, and reunification. China only asks South Korea to shed its military alliance with the US and Japan and points to its own excellent commercial relations with America. This foreign policy is founded on fear. But China knows that fear can be over-done. Were Japan – and South Korea as well – frightened enough of Kim, they might choose to protect themselves with their own nukes rather than trust China. Hence the tension, and China’s need to modulate the Kim regime’s bellicosity.
By the same token, China must tread carefully in its strong, fundamental opposition to Japan’s and South Korea’s acquisition of better anti-missile devices. China presents that opposition as being strict to American missile defense. But the Japanese don’t buy that at all. Nor is that claim inherently credible to South Koreans.
That is why China’s strategy is best served by the Kim regime’s policy of luring Americans into endless negotiations that continue to sap their alliances with Japan and South Korea.