by James Trottier
November 15, 2017
Two major objectives of President Donald Trump’s recent trip to Asia were to impress upon North Korea that if it does not end its nuclear program it will face U.S. military might, and to persuade regional countries to toughen their stand on North Korea. Prior to the trip, diplomacy was on the back burner; a premium was placed on the display of force.
Yet for most of his trip, Trump was more restrained than usual. On Nov. 7, he said that he saw progress on the diplomatic front, a different approach than his sarcastic dismissal of his own Secretary of State’s efforts in October. True, in a speech to the South Korean National Assembly on Nov. 8, the president criticized North Korea for human rights violations, dictatorial governance and its nuclear program. But to the evident relief of South Korean lawmakers, he was not outrageously provocative or gratuitously insulting towards North Korea.
He urged the international community generally, and China and Russia specifically, to enforce and enhance sanctions. He also urged North Korea to make a deal, albeit on terms that are unacceptable to it, namely a commitment to denuclearize. His speech was closer to the traditional U.S. approach to North Korea than to his earlier “fire and fury” rhetoric. (Unfortunately, on Nov. 11, he undermined his own diplomatic efforts by mocking the North Korean leader.)
In meetings with China, Japan, South Korea and others, Trump claims to have obtained support for a robust stand against North Korea. Did his visit to the area change the equation regarding North Korea?
First, as before, North Korea remains focused on regime survival and views nuclear weapons as crucial to that.
Second, Trump’s words will not have assuaged North Korean concerns. His visit coincided with major U.S.-South Korean naval exercises and, while emphasizing diplomatic action, he raised the possibility of using force under ambiguous circumstances, leaving North Korea and others guessing what that force and those circumstances might be.
Third, as North Korea is almost certain to continue missile and nuclear tests, the U.S. will need to decide whether any test constitutes the circumstance that calls for force or whether its own territory or that of its allies would need to be directly targeted.
Fourth, another consideration will be the nature of any such U.S. use of force and its consequences. A U.S. attempt to take out a missile would run the risk of failure as well as retaliation by North Korea. Unknown is whether a North Korean response would be proportional and how the U.S. would respond.
Fifth, South Koreans may be somewhat relieved by Trump’s more temperate language and hope that he understands better how devastating a conflict would be to South Korea. The visit to Seoul and his discussions with South Korean President Moon Jae-in – whom he had earlier accused of appeasement – will reinforce the cautious advice of his own military advisers, well-versed on the realities of the Korean peninsula.
Sixth, China has reiterated its support for sanctions; this may be enough for Trump to affirm that he is gathering international support. However, China will not take action that fundamentally destabilizes North Korea, such as halting oil exports.
Seventh, the resort to sanctions, while preferable to threats of war, will not change the regime’s nuclear agenda.
Eighth, North Korea will not come to the negotiating table if the price of admission is a commitment to denuclearize.
Trump’s apparent warming to diplomacy, however slight and however endurable, is welcome. Yet even a return to the status quo ante would not resolve the situation. There will be no serious negotiations and no possibility of a deal unless and until both sides are willing to talk without pre-conditions. Otherwise the impasse will continue.
James Trottier is a former Canadian diplomat who headed the political/economic program at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul, South Korea from 2013 to 2016. He was also accredited to North Korea and led four Canadian diplomatic delegations there. He served as a diplomat at the UN in New York and in Canadian embassies in Thailand and the Philippines.