Observers ascribe the confrontation between the United States and North Korea to a clash of personality disorders. This is a vulgar error.
Kim Jong-un has a clear objective, which is to equip his country with a nuclear deterrent force. Such an instrument would be a major step toward assuring an “independence” which is more fantasy than reality, given the beggar-level economy to which the Kims have reduced North Korea, by gaining him entry into the exclusive club of nuclear powers.
Obviously, one must hope he will fail. Such ghastly success for the most awful totalitarian regime in existence has nothing to recommend it. Efforts by the UN, and more particularly by the United States, to thwart Kim’s nuclear project, are perfectly understandable and deserve support. This, however, does not negate the logic of his strategy.
Irrationality no doubt plays a part in this plan, because Kim would be prepared to respond to an American attack by striking Seoul, lying at the demarcation line between the two Koreas, with an arsenal of biological, chemical, and conventional weapons.
Donald Trump’s policy is scarcely new: it is the time-honored U.S. policy of halting, perchance reversing, nuclear proliferation, across the world, not just in Korea. One can dispute this policy, which creates a division between “haves” and “have-nots,” but there is nothing absurd about it.
Moreover, the American president’s method in applying this policy stems not from anything to do with psychiatry, as is argued by observers, but by a realistic appraisal of the situation.
The U.S. appealed to North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for massive economic aid: no takers. Then the U.S. rejected a strategy of limited bombings to destroy the North Korean nuclear installations. Finally, the U.S. urged the UN to intervene, and the world organization warned that ballistic missile or nuclear tests by North Korea would lead to economic and other sanctions. Again no takers in the North — if there were any, they have not been heard from and probably never will be.
Trump’s policy, following these failures, consists of asking China for help restraining Kim’s nuclear ambitions. There is nothing absurd or abnormal in this policy. President Trump knows that only China has the means to twist its little North Korean ally’s arm.
The American pressures on China have grown in urgency and variety. From kind words, even flattery, Trump moved to bellicose threats: should others (read: China) not follow, other options, including military ones, must be considered. But the American president has by no means abandoned the preferred policy of Chinese help, and he continues to press the Middle Kingdom’s leaders on this.
The latter understood, and voted, with the other Security Council members, for stronger sanctions, last August 4. These are the harshest to which North Korea has yet been subjected. (Of course, Security Council sanctions and their real-world application are not necessarily the same thing.) North Korea responded by warning the U.S. would pay “a thousand times” for its crimes. Trump replied, in effect, “You wanna fight? Fire and fury, mister.” Kim: “Go ahead.”
In short, neither blinked. But they remain within their respective logics.
True, neither China nor Russia desired to vote to interdict the cheap North Korea labor they get and profit from, which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the Kim regime since it garnishes 80 percent of its guest-workers’ wages. Nor do they want to interrupt the deliveries of petroleum and other sources of energy which North Korea direly needs (and which belie its vaunted “independence”).
In his arguments with China’s leaders, Donald Trump recalls his campaign promises to tax Chinese imports (up to 45 percent) and rein in their unfair currency manipulations. It may be thought China’s economy is too big to worry about American counter-measures, and it is true that, as a command economy, it may be able to control bubbles. But with debt at 300 percent of GNP, will the Chinese risk a trade showdown with the U.S.?
The U.S. economy of course would suffer from such a showdown, but it is unlikely to take place. But the key to international politics — for at least the next few decades — lies in the fact that the U.S. and China are engaged in a competition for global — not just Pacific or East Asian — leadership.
China’s votes in the Security Council are for real: it does not want North Korea to go nuclear. But at the same time, it cannot permit a North Korean collapse that would be to the advantage of a South Korea closely allied to the United States. China cannot see itself, launching a strategy of world leadership and simultaneously backing down on the Korean peninsula. Aware of this, Kim Jong-un affords himself a certain cheek in confronting the American superpower. He figures Beijing will always be there at crunch time.
Donald Trump therefore must consider abandoning the notion that China is his main leverage in dealing with North Korea. We are not there yet, and if or rather when we get there, other worries will arise. But for the moment, Trump is playing his cards well, and, unfortunately, so is Kim. The passive approach of the previous U.S. administration produced nothing good; French president Emmanuel Macron was thus quite right to welcome Trump’s determination to find a better way to deal with Pyongyang.
We must keep in mind that the abysmal awfulness of the North Korean regime is heard not only in its apocalyptic menaces, but in the muted sufferings of the people whom it tyrannizes. This cannot continue. There must be change in North Korea. If the current situation ends in yet another diplomatic, strategic stalemate, the war of ideas must be redoubled. There must be ways of giving North Koreans access to international culture. This is not a substitute for military strength, but a reminder that the USSR fell apart while still in possession of about 12,000 strategic missile launchers.
A version of this column, translated for The American Spectator by Roger Kaplan, appeared in Le Figaro.