Denuclearization or not, there's strategic benefit to Trump's Korean outreach

Denuclearization or not, there's strategic benefit to Trump's Korean outreach
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE’s efforts to disarm North Korea are unlikely to succeed as nuclear weapons are Kim Jong Un’s means of ensuring his safety and the survival of the Kim family dynasty. Although little time has passed since their meeting, thus far the June 12 Singapore summit has yielded little for Trump while giving Kim legitimization, strengthening his position at home. Yet, these setbacks aside, Trump’s outreach to Pyongyang may set in motion a seismic shift in Northeast Asia’s geopolitical order that could work to Washington’s advantage. 

While U.S. denuclearization talks with the North up to now have been ineffective, Trump has stated on different occasions his intention of developing a productive relationship with Kim, possibly signaling ambitions other than ridding Kim of his weapons. 

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It could be that President Trump is setting the stage for a long term goal of luring Pyongyang away from Beijing, the North’s sponsor and sole military partner.

 

While this scenario may seem ludicrous to many in the U.S., such a development has often been the source of consternation for Chinese policymakers. For decades, Beijing has worried that Washington and Pyongyang would develop a partnership — even an alliance — that would leave Beijing on the outside, devoid of influence on the Korean peninsula. 

Trump’s unpredictable ways which place a premium on developing relationships with leaders have been keeping Beijing up at night, particularly since President Xi has experience being on the receiving end of Trump’s past charm offensives and understands their appeal. This was indicated by Xi’s scrambling to host Kim in Beijing shortly after Trump agreed to a summit, an indication of Beijing’s intense desire to secure its influence on the Korean peninsula. 

Beyond this, the Chinese are known for studying the U.S. closely and are concerned that Trump could pull off a Nixon-China move, bringing North Korea into America’s orbit. 

The U.S. would be well served to play on these Chinese fears to keep Beijing off balance and on the defensive. Developing a new relationship with Pyongyang would serve as a blow to China’s stature in the region. It would also force Beijing to grapple with the strategic challenges associated with yet another nuclear armed state on its border — the third, after Russia and India — that possesses its own foreign policy objectives which are divergent from Beijing’s interests. 

(The fourth nuclear state on China’s border, Pakistan, is arguably a different ball of wax as it is typically compliant with Beijing’s imperatives due to its reliance on Chinese aid, infrastructure development and political support vis a vis India.)     

While it is unrealistic to expect that Washington and Pyongyang will become allies, it is within the realm of possibility that both countries could develop a working relationship, moving from a state of constant brinkmanship and hostility to one of transactional exchanges, possibly even cooperation in some areas. Such a relationship would have its pitfalls and areas of distrust, to be sure, yet may allow for progress in some key areas. 

What would Kim want out of such a relationship? For starters, sanctions relief and assurances of his personal security while not giving up any political control. Part of this may involve a game of balancing larger powers against one another, thereby developing a relationship with Washington in order to shield the North from Chinese coercion. (For millennia, the Koreans have understandably resented menacing Chinese behavior which have involved invasions of their territory, demands for tribute, etc.) In order to secure these benefits, Kim may be willing to partly dismantle his nuclear program. 

Some initial areas of understanding and cooperation may be 1) a U.S. security guarantee for Kim in exchange for pledges by Pyongyang to not attack the U.S. or its allies, 2) a peace treaty and normalization of relations between both countries, 3) an agreement that leaves partially intact the North’s nuclear program and keeps U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula, and 4) economic investment commitments by the U.S. on the condition that the North cease its proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and take specified steps to improve its human rights record, releasing political prisoners and accounting for abducted foreign nationals among them.  

A scenario of this nature would possibly open the doors to collaboration on food security, economic development and further North-South reconciliation. It may also serve as a wedge between Pyongyang and Beijing, degrading Beijing’s ability to determine facts on the ground in North Korea while strengthening Washington’s influence on the peninsula. 

The bellicose relationship between Washington and Pyongyang in years past leaves much to be desired. While Trump’s efforts to form a rapport with Kim is unlikely to result in the North’s denuclearization, it may just set the stage for moving U.S.-North Korean relations from a state of impending war to one of basic, working ties. Such a platform could lend itself to geopolitical cooperation, yielding strategic benefits in Washington’s decades-long rivalry with Beijing.

Ted Gover, Ph.D. is an instructor of American government at Central Texas College, where he teaches political science for the United States Marines Corps at Camp Pendleton, California.