North Koreans try to trump China—and the United States

By Bruce Cumings | June 9, 2016

In recent weeks, North Korea has been engaged in a flurry of diplomacy and a flurry of missile tests. What does it all mean, and what is the significance of the timing? And how would such activity likely be dealt with by a President Trump—and how would people on the Korean peninsula react to the idea of his sitting in the Oval Office? No one can predict the future, of course, but we can make some guesses.

First, some background.

The missile in question is a Musudan intermediate rocket, with a range that theoretically encompasses all of Japan proper, Okinawa, and Guam. The launches failed four times. North Korea has never carried out so many tests of a single missile system so frequently, as noted by 38 North. The unusual haste has been attributed to the impending 7th Congress of the Korean Worker’s Party, the first such congress since 1980, which was held in early May. Presumably the three tests in April, had they been successful, would have enhanced the prestige of young leader Kim Jong-un. But testing continued after the congress, too, so this may also have been related to high-level exchanges between Pyongyang and Beijing. If this seems odd—Beijing has been urging Pyongyang to stop missile and A-bomb tests—it fits a pattern: The North is going out of its way to test-test-test, trying to force the world to accept it as a nuclear weapons state.

As I wrote in these pages in January 2016 (“The North Korea That Can Say No”), China sent two different high-level envoys to Pyongyang, the first in November to urge that the North Koreans not test a long-range rocket (which they proceeded to do anyway), the second in February to head off another atomic bomb test (you guessed it, the visit made no difference). In the current case, newly-appointed Politburo member Ri Su-yong traveled to Beijing late in May, his visit punctuated by the fourth of the recent Musudan tests, and the release of a video of what purported to be a submarined-launched missile. Ri is quite close to Kim Jong-un, having been the ambassador who looked after Kim’s every need when Kim was attending secondary school in Switzerland; later Ri was Foreign Minister. Ri was ostensibly tasked with reporting the results of the recent Party Congress to Beijing, but he also made it clear that North Korea would go on testing bombs and missiles. His reward? A completely unexpected audience with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

News reports said their talks were cordial, quoting the Chinese president as saying that China “attached great importance to developing a friendly relationship with North Korea,” and pleading for “calm” in what is sometimes known as “the land of the morning calm”—Korea. No Chinese president has ever before spoken of developing a friendly relationship with the North: It was always rhetoric about a “blood-sealed alliance” or the two countries being “as close as lips to teeth.” President Xi’s statement is an index of just how bad things have gotten between the two presumed allies. Meanwhile, he was silent about denuclearization, in spite of the recent tests and his frequent calls (for example in April) to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.

Why such gifts to Kim Jong-un? Perhaps President Xi is trying out a soft touch, rather than sending hand-picked envoys on fruitless missions to Pyongyang. More likely, Ri’s surprise visit—well, a surprise to the West anyway—was an opening gambit just before the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the United States and China, which opened on June 6. For more than a decade, Washington has wanted Beijing to cooperate in reining in North Korea, and China now faces the task of enforcing tough new United Nations sanctions on the North’s banks and foreign economic activities, most of which depend on Chinese financial institutions. By making nice to Kim, the Chinese president can gain leverage in negotiations with the United States, while pointing to his previous track record of denouncing the North’s missile and bomb tests, almost in unison with Washington. By showing Washington that he has other options, and given the deteriorating status of Sino-American relations, Chinese President Xi strengthens his own hand. (As of this writing, the only news out of the annual talks had to do with South China Sea disputes and American demands that China stop dumping steel and other items in the US market.)

Both capitals may also be trying to gauge the likely results of the American presidential election (like every other capital in what is unquestionably the weirdest campaign in decades, if not centuries). As an American professor of history with a life-long interest in the Koreas—I first became interested in the region while serving in the Peace Corps in South Korea in the late 1960s, and later wrote three books and participated in a documentary series about the Korean War—I have had many requests from friends and colleagues in Seoul, asking me to explain Donald Trump’s foreign policy platform: Would he really remove US troops from Korea? Does he really want us to have nuclear weapons? I try to explain that it is inherently difficult to know what a loose cannon is doing at any given time, or where an unguided missile might land.

But the North Koreans appear to have no problem with Trump, ever since he said he would be willing to talk to Kim Jong-un. Trump doubled down on this policy on June 3, in a speech in Redding, California, saying, “I may not go to North Korea, but I will negotiate with it … They (the critical experts) say, ‘We would never, ever, talk (with the North).’ How foolish they are!”

And earlier this year Kim apparently endorsed Trump for the presidency of the United States: “The Supreme Leader closely weighed and measured the talents all of the US candidates and gave them all careful consideration,” says the purported official statement from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). “[He] has named Donald Trump the official candidate of the DPRK.” Some may joke that Kim probably also wants Dennis Rodman for Secretary of State, but it is an index of how isolated the North Koreans are, and what they really want when all is said and done, that they almost instantly welcomed Trump’s idea.

American leaders seem to think that it’s a big gift if they deign to talk to enemy heads of state. But diplomacy emerged in history as a way of getting enemies to talk to, rather than fight with, each other. The one US president to talk to Kim Il-sung over his long life was Jimmy Carter—and he brought back a freeze on the North’s plutonium facilities that lasted for eight years, until George W. Bush quite stupidly bulldozed his way through that agreement.

What exactly has Washington gotten from its policy of isolating North Korea for 70 years and pretending that it doesn't exist? Nothing but conflict, pain and suffering. Give North Korea a couple more years, and it will have been around longer than the entire Soviet Union. Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, 16 years after the Bolshevik revolution, and managed to develop a working relationship that allowed Moscow and Washington to be allies against the Nazis and Japan in World War II. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will undoubtedly continue the policy of isolation and denuclearization of North Korea. Any number of things would make a Trump presidency interesting, to say the least, but one of them is to see what he would really do in regard to Korea policy.

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