Sudden storm can ready Trump for diplomatic hurricane at Kim summit

Sudden storm can ready Trump for diplomatic hurricane at Kim summit
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After weeks of clear sailing, the arrangements for the Donald Trump-Kim Jung Un summit ran into choppy seas last week. The interruption in this placid passage should jar us into thinking realistically about East Asia. Washington must wake up to envision the near-term and far-term impact of a changed North Korea on the region.

Seemingly out of the blue, the North Koreans threatened to walk away from the negotiations in Singapore on June 12. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) took offense at the substance and tone of Washington’s comments and actions.


A DPRK official allowed that Chairman Kim will not permit efforts to “drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.” To reinforce its angry message, the communist dictatorship broke off scheduled talks with neighboring Republic of Korea (ROK).


As it turns out, there were other Pyongyang grievances. It backtracked on its former blasé attitude toward the annual U.S.-ROK naval and air military exercises. Earlier this spring, the DPRK waved off the training drills by stating their discontinuance was not a precondition for the Trump-Kim dialogue.

Then, its irascible behavior returned. It scorned the participation of U.S. nuclear-capable bombers in the maneuvers as preparations for an attack. The Pentagon changed the flight path of the warplanes but declared it was not caving into threats.

North Korea also objected to comments by National Security Advisor John Bolton, who alluded to the “Libya-model” for a rapid turnover of Muammar Gaddafi's  nuclear components to the United States in a deal worked out in 2003, along with the U.K.

The DPRK has long been strongly averse to following Libya’s denuclearization path, because it disarmed and weakened Gaddafi. North Korean officials think Gaddafi committed regime suicide, resulting in his own death.

Their objection to the Libya precedent practically rules out a rapid denuclearization process being agreed upon in Singapore.

These contretemps may have blown over for now; but no doubt there will be others. If anything, the sudden storm should awaken Washington to the very likely diplomatic hurricane the president and its fellow negotiators will encounter next month.

The placid behavior and concession-granting North Korea fails to represent the worrisome regime’s true nature.

The negotiations over North Korea’s possible denuclearization are overwhelmingly critical to get right for two major reasons.

First (and obviously), removing nuclear arms from the clutches of a menacing nation will make the world much safer from a nuclear attack or accident. If Trump accomplishes this goal, he deserves his much-discussed award of the Nobel Peace prize.

The second consideration involved in denuclearizing the secretive and isolated nation is what follows afterward for the region. For decades, the DPRK’s geostrategic status has been frozen by the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice not a peace treaty, and by its rogue-nation threats toward the United States, South Korea and Japan.

It is important to keep in mind that a more benign DPRK is not only a benefit for the United States and its allies but also for China. Beijing fears a U.S.-North Korean war that would pull it into a direct conflict with America.

Our hope for a de-nuked North Korea is that it develops economically and sides with the ROK, Japan and the United States against China. But those are not Beijing’s goals. China wants to exclude the United States from northeastern Asia, just as it has almost completely dominated the South China Sea in recent months.

If things become less dangerous on the Korean Peninsula, why does the Pentagon need to garrison 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea? President TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE expressed that he would be open to their withdrawal “at some point in the future.”

If post-Cold War Europe suggests any analogy for U.S. troop pullouts, the United States drew down forces when no longer needed for military missions there.

After the Soviet Union collapse, the Pentagon steadily scaled down its 400,000 combat-ready military personnel to less than 67,000 before beefing up its force levels only in the wake of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and attack on eastern Ukraine in 2014. A similar U.S. retreat from South Korea would constitute a Chinese victory.

Without American military forces in South Korea, would it and North Korea slip into China’s expanding orbit? Such an outcome would shrink the U.S. defensive umbrella over Japan, Taiwan and the rest of Asia. Imagine during the next decade the impact on Asia of a quasi-Sinicized Korean Peninsula.

The repercussions of a marginalized United States in Asia would represent a victory for China brought about by thinking short-term about how Washington handles a changing North Korea. Our allies will be intently watching.

North Korea, and the entire peninsula, is key to how this great game of Sino-American rivalry will unfold. It resembles the centrality of Poland in the 18th century, the Balkans in the 19th century and Eastern European states (particularly Czechoslovakia and Poland) in the first half of the 20th century.

Each of these geographical epicenters were preyed upon by their more powerful neighbors and formed powder kegs that set off major wars. Korea — North and South — is becoming a similar cockpit of competition in Asia.

American negotiators at the Singapore summit need one split screen to keep track of denuclearization and another to preserve U.S. interests in the greater East Asia. The stakes couldn’t be higher. 

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow specializing in the study of U.S. diplomatic and military courses of action toward terrorist havens in the non-Western world and toward rogue regimes at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His most recent book is "Cycles in U.S. Foreign Policy Since the Cold War," which has just been released in a paperback edition.