What Is The Aim Of Trump’s North Korea Challenge?

Alan Keyes Former Assistant Secretary of State
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According to one recent report “a top U.S. official warned Tuesday that ‘the clock has run out’ on decades of diplomatic efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs….”  He also reportedly said that “It is now urgent, because we feel that the clock is very, very quickly running out.”  That nuance of difference leaves a little running room for further diplomacy. But, as the report notes, the warning it conveys lines up with the fact that “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said the threat that country [North Korea] poses is ‘imminent.’  During a trip to Asia he said Washington is out of ‘strategic patience’ and that ‘all options are on the table’—a phrase typically understood to refer to military action.”

In the face of all the world, the Trump Administration appears to be throwing down the gauntlet.  North Korea’s threatening behavior is the proximate cause for the challenge. But the gauntlet is being hurled at the feet of Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Chairman of that country’s Central Military Commission. Moreover, it is timed to land at his feet just as they take steps to embark upon the journey toward his first face-to-face meeting with President Trump.

All this is meant to put maximum pressure on Xi Jinping to do something about North Korea’s militantly threatening words and actions under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, the reportedly sanguinary ruler of North Korea.  He has been, charged in some quarters with the bizarre assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam. If the Washington Post can be believed, “behind the scenes” that murder produced “a sense of shock and dismay in Beijing.” Because “for over a decade” Kim Jong Nam “was a guest of their country, and one who would probably have provided valuable intelligence in the past.”

This dark soap opera raises intriguing questions about China’s present aims with respect to the North Korean government.  North Korea’s apparently over-the-top disposition under Kim Jong Un’s rule may really be of concern to the Chinese government.  On the other hand, if the Chinese are confident that they can rein him in whenever they choose, holding him on a long leash creates negotiating capital.  By drawing an unmistakable line in the sand, doesn’t the Trump Administration raise the value of this capital?

If so, it would be of use to the Chinese, even if they could still count on being America’s #1 foreign creditor, a position that some would think should give them the whip hand in their relations with the U.S.  The saliency of that thought may be increased by the ambitious spending President Trump apparently wants the U.S. Government to undertake, spending that will sustain the upward pressure that has pushed our national debt to unprecedented highs.

But, to sustain their own economic situation the Chinese have had to step away from their place at the top of our creditor list.  A creditor’s relationship with a very large debtor is always fraught with ambiguity.  Even more so when other economic and monetary pressures are forcing some retrenchment.  If North Korea’s ‘bad boy’ behavior creates negotiating capital for the Chinese, the U.S. Government’s determination to continue over-the-top spending raises the specter of a collapse that could drag the Chinese down with us.

Ironically, these countervailing pressures may provide both nations with the negotiating capital they need to make a deal. If the Chinese are confident they can rein in North Korea’s behavior, they can agree to do so, provided the Trump Administration is willing, in the end, to soften the tough stance it has used to generate negotiating capital on the issue of trade with China.  President Trump would burnish the his still questionable credentials as someone capable of dealing with the international dimensions of national security.  The Chinese government would maintain good source of surplus income, at a time when that will come in handy.

But wouldn’t such an outcome would have Trump reneging on his promise to negotiate a “fair trade” deal with China, one that addresses the unfavorable U.S.- China trade imbalance?  The voters who applaud Trump’s “America First” approach to trade could end up having to suppress their eager expectations, just as they have in regard to replacing Obamacare, but with more reason to complain of betrayal.

If their intention was to take the tough trade stance required to make good on candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric, wouldn’t the new Administration have avoided the appearance of issuing an “ultimatum” on North Korea?  As things stand, the Trump Administration is positioned to claim a win if they induce the Chinese to take North Korea in hand. They could use the imperatives of international peace and security as their excuse for not getting more on the trade front.  The Chinese would come out of it with their trade profits more or less intact, while demonstrating that they hold the key to avoiding a situation in Asia that could lead to a U.S. Chinese military confrontation fraught with global implications.

Meanwhile, a question hangs in the air: Does America have no choice but China or war when it comes to Kim Jong Un’s threatening activities?  When it comes to the shadow world of intelligence gathering activities, the United States appears to be in deep crisis, mainly for political reasons.  But does that crisis portend another, affecting activities necessarily undertaken in that same world of shadows?  Is there no likelihood that we will read of damaging setbacks in North Korea’s vaunted nuclear and missile programs, with no culprit in the spotlight, however much people assert that they know who is to blame?

Hope in that regard could allow President Trump to demand trade fairness in exchange for giving the Chinese a pass on reining in their North Korean wild card.  After all the challenging talk, the new Administration might appear to lose face.  But how long will that loss seem significant to Americans rejoicing in the prospects of increased jobs and profit from the China trade.  Americans are never so happy with what others do for us, as they are with what we prove capable of doing for ourselves.

Those who have good reason to hope they will be blessed by the calamity of an outspoken enemy should see no point in being suspected of anything but good fortune when that calamity occurs. But neither should they fear to let others off the hook for not giving aid that they have good reason to hope providence will supply. Sometimes it pays dividends to speak softly while appearing to carry nothing but a briefcase.  Sometimes, imperatively demanding what you don’t really need can position you to get more of what you truly want.  If that’s where Trump’s serve is going, he’s disguising it well.