By Ivan Eland
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is at it again, horrifying the U.S. foreign policy elite by saying that he would speak to Kim Jong Un, the erratic North Korean leader, to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program. For example, the standard bearer for this elite, and Trump’s likely Democratic opponent for president, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sneered at Trump’s “bizarre fascination with foreign strongmen.”
Imagine actually talking to difficult countries, as Ronald Reagan successfully did with the Soviet Union! Trump knows that it takes a tough and effective leader to use negotiation and diplomacy instead of the reflexive use of military force, which has marked the weak and insecure presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Trump’s high-level negotiation likely would be more successful in limiting or getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear program than past, unsuccessful lower-level U.S. bargaining with the regime over the same issue.
With U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, Kim Jong Un is paranoid of a combined, U.S.-South Korean attack on his country. The main reason that he has likely developed nuclear weapons is to deter such an attack. A President Trump speaking to him personally might ease these fears significantly.
Also dismissed by the foreign policy elite is Trump’s strategy of putting pressure on China, North Korea’s only ally, to prod Kim to negotiate away his nuclear program. Trump said in a recent media interview: “I would put a lot of pressure on China because economically we have tremendous power over China.”
The foreign policy elite notes that despite recent Chinese annoyance with North Korean nuclear and missile tests, and China’s agreement to impose some economic sanctions on the regime, it still props up the always rickety North Korean autocracy with supplies of energy and other vital goods over their common border. Thus, the elite doubts that China will change this behavior.
Yet Trump, a businessman, may be more savvy than politicians and bureaucrats by focusing on negotiating parties’ incentives to do things—that is, Trump likely knows that for a sustainable arrangement on the North Korean nuclear program to be reached and honored, it has to be advantageous for both China and the U.S. Trump is correct that China is the key to moving North Korea on the issue and when pressure on China is combined with other elements of Trump’s foreign policy program, it just might work.
The main reason that China supports the dangerously unpredictable North Korea is that it feels it has no choice: If the North Korean regime collapses, China fears Korea will be unified under a pro-U.S. South Korean government—U.S. military and even U.S. nuclear forces could be right on China’s border.
In other words, China would then have a hostile alliance dominated by a military superpower, the U.S., on its border. Given the collapse of communist governments in Europe at the end of the Cold War and the expansion of a U.S.-led NATO alliance hostile to Russia right on Russian borders, the Chinese believe that their fears are well grounded.
Trump’s solution to this friction is to allow wealthy allies in the region like Japan and South Korea to defend themselves. China would no longer need to fear the U.S. superpower, with its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, on its border if North Korea collapsed.
Therefore, if Trump implemented this change in U.S. policy, China might have a greater incentive to pressure North Korea to limit or eliminate its nuclear program than it currently does. China has no intrinsic incentive to want an unstable state possessing nuclear weapons as its immediate neighbor.
In sum, although Trump is still putting together his foreign policy, he already has the pieces to create a more coherent and possibly more successful policy toward North Korea than the stodgy U.S. elite, who have sniffed at him.
This article was published at The Hill and reprinted with permission.