Syria retreat undercuts Trump’s once-tough North Korea policy

It is time for a mid-term review of the Trump administration’s handling of the North Korea issue, which Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden calls for unity, jabs at Trump in campaign launch Several factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Lewandowski: Why Joe Biden won't make it to the White House — again MORE warned would be his most critical national security challenge.

The term opened with Pyongyang continuing its periodic nuclear and missile tests and escalating its rhetoric, only to be matched, insult for insult, by the U.S. commander-in-chief.  Trump went beyond the personal level, threatening “fire and fury” and the violent destruction of the North Korean regime. No American president had ever talked to any of the Kim family despots that way.

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When senior administration officials began quietly offering sober suggestions of “bloody nose” military action against Pyongyang, the speak-softly/big-stick approach made the president’s threats all the more credible. That was the first element of what initially proved to be an effective three-part Trump negotiating strategy.

The second component, that caught the attention of both Kim Jong Un and China’s Xi Jinping, was the administration’s “maximum pressure” economic campaign that mandated the most sweeping U.S. and United Nations sanctions ever imposed on North Korea, and on China, its lone but indispensable ally. Asymmetrically, the president punctuated his warnings with a bold missile strike on Syria during Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago. While punishing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for crossing Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons against his people, it showed the Chinese leader and the world a decisive new president’s willingness to use American power. Both communist governments began to take the Trump challenge more seriously.

But, arguably, it was the third element of the president’s frontal attack on the Kim regime that sent shivers up the Kim and Xi spines — the ultimate Achilles heel of all tyrants: human rights.  Trump undertook a global rhetorical campaign that effectively challenged the very legitimacy of the regime in Pyongyang.

In three major speeches before diverse audiences — South Korea’s National Assembly, the United Nations General Assembly, and the State of the Union address, the president described in graphic detail the humanitarian horrors of the North Korean system.

Before Congress, he highlighted the regime’s human rights abuses with the appearance in the Capitol visitors’ balcony of a disabled escapee from one of North Korea’s gulags. Tears streaming, defiantly waving his crutch, he roused the entire congressional body, and American and global viewers, in universal denunciation of the Pyongyang regime. A few days later, the president upped the delegitimization ante by hosting a dozen other North Korean regime victims to tell their tragic stories, televised live from the Oval Office.

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Remarks by other administration officials contributed to the growing narrative that the gangster-like government in Pyongyang was not fit to govern the North Korean people. Regime change was the clear unspoken message. And this was a weapon that could be wielded nonviolently through a strategic communications campaign of information warfare, internal subversion and popular resistance of the kind that relatively peacefully brought down the Soviet Union and the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The stage was now set for just such a game-changing strategy for North Korea, without the costs and risks of outright military conflict.    It would be denuclearization through delegitimization.

The combination of war threats, economic sanctions and regime change from within, but with lots of outside help, brought an attitudinal change in Pyongyang. Missile and nuclear tests were suspended, American prisoner-of-war remains and living U.S. hostages were turned over, and some weapons facilities were ostensibly destroyed.   

With the Moon Jae-in government in Seoul playing good cop to Trump’s bad cop and facilitating Washington-Pyongyang communications, the Korea zeitgeist changed dramatically. The shifting momentum away from the danger of imminent conflict led to agreement on a Trump-Kim summit.

But China’s Xi suddenly stepped in, probably recognizing that if North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were truly eliminated, Beijing would lose a massive bargaining chip over Washington and the West that had served its strategic interests well for over three decades. It had given the Chinese communists tremendous leverage over the U.S. on trade, Taiwan, the South and East China Seas, and China’s own human rights record. Speaking of good cop/bad cop, Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, weapons programs, outlandish threats and acts of aggression enabled Beijing to play the role of responsible stakeholder and good-faith negotiating partner for the West. As one former U.S. official once observed, we wished North Korea would be more like China.

So, lest Kim get too carried away with his Trump entente, his Chinese mentors/financiers summoned him to Beijing for some adult supervision. The rhetoric from Pyongyang immediately hardened and returned to its more familiar vitriol. Trump just as quickly called off the upcoming summit.

Officials in Seoul and Washington went into damage-control mode and the Singapore meeting proceeded, resulting in an exuberant, but highly premature, mission-accomplished statement from the president. Since then, the talks to carry out the supposed North Korean denuclearization commitment have foundered.

The reason for the new/old stalemate is that the three pillars supporting the initial momentum for success have all weakened or been abandoned. Trump and Kim “falling in love” has replaced “fire and fury.” China and Russia are subverting the sanctions regime. And the most potent Western weapon — peaceful regime change based on a human rights agenda — has been abandoned even as the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea just issued a chilling new report on the cradle-to-grave inhumanity inflicted on the Kim-tormented population.

As this article was being completed, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE suddenly announced a precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Syria. That decision will not only prove calamitous for the region; unless reversed, it will also vindicate the Beijing-Pyongyang axis strategy to wait out this American president as they successfully did with his predecessors. Further, it inevitably undermines U.S. credibility on Taiwan and the South and East China Seas.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.