TOM PLATE WRITES — America is now more confused than ever about North Korea. And it’s not all Mr Trump’s fault. Neither can America fairly say it’s all China’s fault.
For as long as I have been writing about Asia, North Korea has been the black hole of American foreign policy. To right-wing hawks, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a monster mashup of Stalin, Hitler and Godzilla, for which humanitarian mercy has no place. To left-wing doves, North Korea is nothing more than the brutally mismanaged half of a broken-peninsula on which someday the sun will shine, slow-melting frozen halves into holistic happiness.
Into this disarray strides the mercurial Donald Trump with a pressing problem – the Russian connection – and possibly with only one way out of the Russian box: some spectacular success. Is he perhaps musing? ‘Thank heaven for Kim Jong Un. He scares Americans even more than Special Counsel Robert Mueller scares me.’
Even so, may a serious-minded Trump-Kim summit proceed apace … though with cautions galore. Relations with North Korea have been abominable, so there is no mutual trust or social capital on which to build, and less-than-perfect technical means of verifying a hoped-for denuclearization protocol. And – one worries – might Kim actually be a dim bulb? Our best experts are rightly modest about what they claim to know about this young authoritarian, his governing elite and its Workers’ Party of Korea and his tragically underdeveloped country. At a recent pair of policy-wonk meetings held by RAND (www.rand.org), the think tank near Los Angeles, and at an awards dinner organized by PCI (http://www.pacificcenturyinst.org), former American diplomat Robert Gallucci, who was America’s chief negotiator during the temporary settlement of the Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, put this out as his bottom line: Neither hawks nor doves in the ideological aviary know what they are squawking about.
Neither knows much about anything North Korean, was his point. Did the Kim Jong-un regime fast-forwarded its missile program to put in motion a game plan to unite all Korea under the flag of Pyongyang? Or … did the regime grind out more missiles and cook up more nukes out of the sheer nightmare terror of being made toast by the West, as per Iraq’s Hussein and Libya’s Gaddafi? Or … is it that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (wily, not dim) desperately needed to gain full control over the military by buying off those generals (that couldn’t simply be eliminated) by letting them have their macho missile-launches? Is Kim now in position to trend dovish? Or is it still the house of cunning communist hawks?
Reasonably informed answers to such questions would help American policy avoid guesswork and increase the odds of avoiding consequences unintended. Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate – unless you lack basic facts. And we have so few, and we fill the embarrassing vacuum with pompous perspectives that confuse the American public. As Gallucci, who for years was to the Georgetown Foreign Service School dean, pointed out: Maybe there is a price to be paid that could bring down or slow down the buildup? Under what circumstances (if any) would it be in the North’s interest to coexist in a nuclear-free peninsula? Or maybe they as confused and muddled as we are so that no price could ever fill the bill?
China is incessantly labelled by our hawks as the puppet-master of Pyongyang. But from true experts such as Gallucci, as well as Dr. Richard Haass, the learned president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (who, as did Gallucci, accepted a major PCI ‘building bridges’ award here in Los Angeles), the government of Mr Xi Jinping receives more subtle treatment. Not unlike American-ally Tokyo, for example, Beijing, though for reasons different, might not wax so ecstatic over visions of a unified Korean Peninsula and (not unlike maybe about half of all South Koreans) might well prefer the status quo – especially if somehow Kim Jong-un can be induced into chummier transitional cosmopolitanism. The Chinese would then get to keep their North Korean buffer zone, and Japan wouldn’t have the worry about the prospect of a united Korea thinking to suit up to settle old scores. But denuclearization is a threat to no one; a nuclear arms race is.
As for America and its 45th president, perhaps Mr Trump – after rounds of annoying ping-pong twitter with the much younger Kim Jong Un – embodies the very personification of Richard Nixon’s vaunted “madman” theory of a President. This is one whose utter unpredictability freezes foreign “troublemakers” in their tracks. Might Hamlet Trump superficially engage Kim, depart angry, fire off another tweet fit, and publicly order his generals to load up the guns? This would satiate the president’s political core and maybe even push the Mueller probe off center stage, while our president seeks to mimic John F. Kennedy’s “cool” handling of the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis.
Domestic politics aside, the moral of this wild new turn in peninsular diplomacy, as per Mr Gallucci and Mr Haass, is that America really doesn’t know what it is doing, and at the same time North Korea may not really know where it is going. A summit may never happen; or it might. The shrewd Mr Kim may act humbly, or he may not. The mercurial Mr Trump may prove quite the negotiator, or he may hoist himself on the petty petard of his macho and embarrass everyone. Wherever they meet – Hiroshima would be my preference, but that’s obviously not going to happen – they need to leave their egos and red nuclear buttons alone and do the right thing for this tense area of the globe. China and Japan would surely applaud.

South China Morning Post Columnist Tom Plate, author of the recent ‘Yo-Yo Diplomacy’ and the four-book ‘Giants of Asia’ series, is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Pacific Century Institute’s vice president. This colun originally appeared on the Insight and Comment page of the SCMP in Hong Kong.


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