Why We Think Trump Still Has A Good Shot At Cutting A Deal With North Korea (And A China Trade Deal To Boot!)
Trump did the right thing, departing early from his summit with Kim Jong-un in Vietnam, after the North Korean leader demanded the U.S. lift all economic sanctions before he’d talk nukes. Less than one day later, North Korea is already moderating that demand, saying it only wants some sanctions lifted. And it’s interesting to look at how North Korea’s state run media is reporting the dissolution of the meeting: with not a bad word about anything, and ending with Kim wishing Trump well.
And can any progress be made a long as North Korea refuses to fully denuclearize (something we’ve long asserted it’ll never do)? Yes. At least as an interim step, Trump seems to be softening on that demand, as long as Kim doesn’t launch any missiles, or test any nuclear weapons.
True, it was embarrassing for the U.S. President to trek halfway around the world, for what turned out to be nothing. And a testament to a lack of preparedness by Trump and over-confidence in his ability to pull major agreements out of thin air by force of his personality alone, and his “personal touch”. And his personal relationship with a murderous dictator Trump describes as “quite a guy, and quite a character”. Guess that is a fair characterization…sort of…
But really, it’s OK. Walking away was the only reasonable thing to do.
Trump did manage to compound the embarrassing outcome with his utterly disgusting assertion that Kim had nothing to do with the severe treatment of American student Otto Warmbier while in North Korean custody, that ultimately led to his death. Here’s a clip in which Trump says, among other things: “[Kim] tells me he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word”. (Click on the photo to watch):
But no country in the world is more micromanaged than North Korea. (Not even Russia. Not even Saudi Arabia.) We know, we’ve been there. And no way Kim wouldn’t know, in detail, about the treatment and fate of any American in one of his prisons or camps.
But we don’t think any of that’ll matter much ultimately, because it won’t be Trump that’ll get things started up again (maybe via another “beautiful” letter from Kim to the U.S. President). It’ll be China.
While a U.S./North Korea nukes deal and a U.S./China trade deal are completely separate, and being negotiated by completely separate teams, they are also inexorably linked.
If you look at what’s going on from a broader, geopolitical perspective, it’s completely in China’s interests for both of those things to happen.
In fact, it could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
China for years was happy to have North Korea as a regional troublemaker, because it acted as an annoying buffer between the Chinese mainland and nearly 80,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan.
The 50,000 soldiers in Japan are a remnant of World War II, and were originally placed there not only to protect and help rebuild a dramatically weakened country, but to make sure it didn’t re-militarize. The almost 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are mostly there because of the Korean War, which never officially ended. All these years. North and South Korea have been operating under what may be the world’s longest ceasefire. But by now, the real reason so many U S. troops remain in those places is to check China’s (and to a lesser extent Russia’s) tendency to expand influence over the region by coercion, or use of outright force.
And now, all of a sudden, the U.S. has a President who’s obsessed with pulling troops out of places, and reducing military assistance to allies (other than by encouraging them to buy more U S.-made military equipment). He’s talked specifically about removing U.S. troops from China and South Korea. Just now, the New York Times reports that as part of negotiations with the Taliban, the Trump Administration is offering to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan within the next 3 to 5 years. (We’re not saying these moves are all bad, just that they all seem to be treated with the same level of importance and urgency, and they’re not). And Trump, even on this most recent trip continues to boast about (and exaggerate) how much money he’s saving since he discontinued military exercises and war games in or near Korea.
China has wanted the U.S. military out for years. It’s not going to pass up this opportunity — that may never come again — where a U.S. President seems willing to at least entertain the idea of giving them exactly what they want — especially if they give him a good deal on trade.
Buying a little more soybeans and stealing a little less intellectual property is surely a small price to pay for the possibility of significantly reducing the number of U S. troops on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan.
Kim Jong-un and his iconic train have made far more visits to Beijing for meeetings with President Xi, than Kim has met with Trump. And according to North Korean media, Xi is planning to reciprocate this year with a visit to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. (Although China has not confirmed this). And Xi even loaned Kim a plane to get to the earlier Singapore summit with Trump. So they seem to be in constant communication.
Trump addressed — and downplayed — China’s influence at a media briefing prior to his departure from Vietnam. Here’s a clip (click on the photo to watch):
Trump makes a good point: even if China intends to get things back on track, Kim’s still the decision maker in North Korea.
So now everyone’s stuck dealing with the whims of an unpredictable madman, prone to suddenly changing his mind. (We mean Kim. Maybe.)