Last year I wrote several columns pondering the great gamesmanship underlying the boisterous President Trump’s edgy exchanges of radioactive rhetoric with China’s North Korean puppet, Kim Jong-Un. In those articles, I eschewed the notion that North Korea’s dictator pursues his nuclear ambition without Chin’s approval. The usual media coverage tends to leave China out of the picture. But North Korea’s Kim dynasty owes its very existence to the Chinese Communist regime. That is an historic and ongoing fact. It seems preposterous to analyze events in what is literally China’s backyard without considering the Communist regime’s deep interest, and likely role, in those events.
In this respect, I have been waiting, as it were, for the other shoe to drop ever since the South Koreans announced Kim Jong-Un’s interest in meeting with President Trump. I took it for granted that the Chinese Grandmaster was responsible for the move. I was not entirely surprised that it came in the aftermath of the reported physical collapse of North Korea’s nuclear testing facility, as well as what may be some softening in the Trump Administration’s efforts to rein in China’s profiteering trade with the U.S. As I wrote last May:
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.
The Kim-Trump summit raises the prospect of a bilateral deal with North Korea, based on Kim Jong-Un’s retreat from a nuclear development program circumstances have already curtailed. Moreover, it may come in the context of a rapprochement with South Korea from which the Korean people could eventually emerge, restored and reinvigorated, as an independent force in its own right. Provided the longstanding friendship between U.S. and South Korea remains intact, the American people are likely to conclude that the win for peace justifies a modest retreat on the trade front.
A question remains to be answered, however, before we rejoice in the thought of a Nobel Prize, awarded conjointly to the three heads-of-state responsible for this historic, not to mention unexpected, breakthrough for peace and prosperity. What about the Chinese? Do they now attach so much importance to the bottom line of their trade with the U.S. that they’re ready to give up their bid to make the South China Sea their very own Gulf of Mexico?
Kim Jog-Un’s obstreperous response to a long-planned U.S.-South Korean military exercise, and his reiterated refusal to let go the pretense of being a nuclear power, seem calculated to shatter the peace prize daydream. Like most such reveries, it failed to consider the consequential nature of events—how one turn leads to another not quite in line with the happy end the dream has in view. If the armed truce in the never-ended Korean war turns into a peace treaty, what becomes of America’s military presence in South Korea?
Clamor for U.S. retreat from the region will abound. What need is there for a UN Command in a war that’s finally over? If North Korea eventually accepts denuclearization, doesn’t it make sense for South Korea to accept American demilitarization—meaning the withdrawal of U.S. forces and an end to the institutional military apparatus that supported and legitimized their presence? What need is there for a foreign tripwire, under the auspices of a UN venture out of step with a world in which China is a UN member, not a pariah state at war with the peaceful aspirations of humankind?
The film-short scripted as The Trump Card might have to be written as an epic remake of Enter the Dragon. The scene where the North Korean proxy threatens to upset the negotiating table calls for a sudden reversal, in which the hidden player, looking to take over the House, steps in to assert a new order of play. In exchange for getting nuclear weapons out of North Korea, China pushes for a peace scenario in which the United States withdraws its forces from South Korea and curtails its opposition to China’s ambitious goal of becoming the arbiter of events in the region.
An uncharitable assessment might see this as an instance in which President Trump’s abandonment of Obama’s lead from behind approach morphs into a pacesetting race to the front; only to surrender the lead to a come-from-behind finisher, no one was looking at until the final stretch. How this metaphor translates into the real events we are pondering may depend on the particular perspective of the individuals making the decisions. For example, will President Trump’s political clout benefit more from the success or failure of the negotiations? He could tout a deal as a great success, even if it caters to China’s ambitions. Or, by maintaining a hardline against Kim’s nuclear demands, even if it collapses the ‘historic’ summit, he could rally and energize a voter base that expects him to stand firm for ‘America First’.
I would think that responding fearlessly to Kim Jong-Un’s tantrum is the best way to see whether Kim’s Chinese puppet-master is bluffing. After all, if China steps in to call him to heel, perhaps the tripartite Nobel Prize goes to Xiang-Xi instead of Kim. With their trade profits mostly secure, they will have the enhanced reputation and the purse required to continue their Long March toward regional hegemony. Meanwhile, they are also likely to get at least some modification of the US military presence in South Korea and the South China Sea, provided a peace accord actually ends the term of the UN Command in South Korea.
An argument could be made that this looks like a win-win for all those really concerned. Anyway, the only one who appears to lose face if President Trump continues to play hardball is Kim Jong UN. But surely he knows that he’s only acting a part, and will still be well-paid.
Alan Keyes is a political activist, a prolific writer and a former diplomat.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.