August 13, 2017
Following his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago on April 7, President Trump said, “… the relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding…”
On July 30, a disappointed President Trump launched a Twitter assault on Peking saying, “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet… they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”
On August 1, in remarks to the press, Secretary Tillerson said:
“We’ve been very clear with the Chinese we certainly don’t blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea… But we do believe China has a special and unique relationship because of this significant economic activity to influence the North Korean regime in ways that no one else can…
“… We have reaffirmed our position towards North Korea, that what we are doing, we do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. And we’re trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point, they will begin to understand that and that we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea …”
On August 8, a week after North Korea’s second successful ballistic missile test in a month, President Trump, said: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen…”
And this is how Secretary Tillerson interpreted President Trump’s remarks: “… I think the President – what the President is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language…” Indeed, how could anyone expect North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to grasp the subtle messages President Trump conveys in conventional diplomatic language and tweets? So, escalatory statements continue on both sides.
Furthermore, according to Reuters, “The people are suffering and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary,” President Trump told reporters last Friday.
Following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine one of the personal traits attributed to President Putin was his unpredictability. At present, in a world of transformation, the contest for unpredictability appears to be wide open.
In recent years, the statement “all options are on the table” has been frequently used in conflict situations with threatening overtones. In the case of North Korea, however, there is but one option and that is convincing Pyongyang at the negotiating table that predictability matters.
At the end of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in early July, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries issued a press statement on the resolution of the Korean peninsula issue. This statement contained a joint initiative based on the Chinese-proposed ideas of “double freezing” (missile and nuclear activities by the DPRK and large-scale joint exercises by the United States and the Republic of Korea) and “parallel advancement” towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The first part of this joint initiative could be a realistic way of reducing current tensions. The second part, however, is nothing but an illusion with the current regime in Pyongyang and most probably beyond. Countries which attain nuclear power status remain determined to preserve it. Last week in Manila, North Korea’s Foreign Minister, Ri Yong-ho, denouncing the sanctions unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council, said that his country will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table.
In August 2014, this was what President Obama said to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times regarding China: “They are free riders. And they have been free riders for the last 30 years and it’s worked really well for them. And, I’ve joked sometimes, when my inbox starts stacking up. I said can’t we be a little bit more like China? Nobody ever seems to expect them to do anything when this stuff comes up.”
The truth is China, while rising as a global economic power, has wisely refrained from getting involved in international conflicts and has remained very principled and predictable by current international standards. Peking is most likely to avoid heated rhetoric and emphasize quiet diplomacy also in the case of North Korea. However, contrary to President Trump’s expectations, China may not be able to “easily solve the problem”.
Three observations on the current picture:
First, Pyongyang’s nuclear program and its ballistic missile tests should remind the world of the importance of nuclear non-proliferation. Because, the way Kim Jong-un has challenged world’s leading military power may serve as an attractive example for others.
Second, President Trump would be well-advised not to turn the current crisis into a bilateral conflict between the US and the DPRNK by constantly upping the ante. Dealing with North Korea requires building a broad diplomatic understanding beyond unanimity for sanctions at the UN Security Council.
And third, in the light of tensions with North Korea, the Trump administration may consider taking a fresh look its policy towards Iran. In 1985 North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In January 2003, it withdrew from the Treaty only to announce three months later that it possessed nuclear weapons. Iran, on the other hand, remains a party to the NPT; has concluded the JCPOA with the P5+1; and, the IAEA the US have certified again last month that Iran is complying with its terms. So, a better way of addressing the question of Iran’s missile tests could be engagement which is exactly what Washington now seems to be seeking with Pyongyang. As for “Iran’s destabilizing activities”, another justification for sanctions, this unfortunately happens to be a Middle Eastern way of settling scores with brothers in faith and precious few remain above the fray.