Trump needs to get smart as North Korea keeps up ‘missile diplomacy’
Tom Plate says US policy on North Korea must stem from astute first-hand intelligence, lacking thus far, starting with recognising the country and setting up an embassy
Twitter and telephone diplomacy between America and Asia has become such a new normal since Inauguration Day that it was almost a relief to catch sight of an actual Asian leader in the White House.
That was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in non-virtual mode. This is good experience for Donald Trump, the world’s most famous former real estate mogul. Maybe the new US president might do more of this – perhaps travel some – in order to avoid remaining the prisoner of his own thoughts, which do not always bear up under scrutiny, sometimes not even under his own.
Abe arrived just after Trump had reached out to touch someone else: President Xi Jinping (習近平). With that phone call, the US president later declaimed, the Sino-US “one-China” policy was solidified anew. Let us so hope.
The policy has arguably worked well, even, in part, for Taiwan – at least existentially.
Let us be real: America would more readily hand back Texas to Mexico than the mainland would without a fight permit Taiwan to distance itself further. Even so, in Taipei circles, this latest diplomatic call from Trump has to be viewed as as much of a setback as the one in December was a triumph. That was when Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, called to congratulate Trump, and the unprepared then president-elect picked up as if it were no more a big deal than taking a call from a golfing buddy.
Watch: Tsai Ing-wen calls president-elect Donald Trump
But one such call does not constitute a policy shift. The danger right now is to overreact to any aspect of Trump’s yo-yo diplomacy.
He is but learning the ropes of this difficult job, and at warp – or perhaps Twitter – speed.
In all fairness, the fact is that the US presidency is no easy position to field, whether it is an internationally savvy George H. W. Bush entering the White House in 1989 or a domestically savvy Bill Clinton in 1993.
On Sunday, North Korea threw up into the East Asian sky something like an intermediate-range missile, as if to set the stage for the launch of a longer-range incontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), able to reach the US. Yet another unwanted “incoming” for America’s leading untried politician.
Trump’s critics claim he shows all the hallmarks of a bully. If this is true, then confronted with superior bullying power, the standard bully can be predicted to back down rather than go to the wrestling mat. Personally, if his psychoanalysing critics have it right, I would be more comfortable with an American president who can take a punch without, say, always punching back and risking nuclear war.
Watch: Trump’s Twitter call to ‘strengthen and expand” US nuclear capability sparks concern
Let’s see what the reaction is to North Korea’s latest attention getting “missile diplomacy”. Washington had already been abuzz over some kind of upcoming reckoning. Trump had awarded his first “red line” to the possibility of a North Korean ICBM test. No doubt the Xi-Trump phone call touched on this, as did the long sessions with Abe.
The Chinese would be immeasurably discomforted by any pre-emptive action against its technical ally, Pyongyang. The Japanese might not be wildly thrilled about a blow-up in East Asia, either. Neither would treaty ally South Korea, with its capital Seoul but a short rocket hoist from the North’s bunkers.
The inherent tension, and the nervousness it induces, is reminiscent of America and Iraq circa 2002. That ill-conceived invasion was based on an incorrect assessment (“bad regimes would topple like dominoes”) and faulty intelligence (non-existent weapons of mass destruction). It was all baloney.
The seeming surety with which the US establishment is now touting North Korea as the second coming of Iraq is unsettling. We do not know enough about it: the US has no embassy in the country, not even a half-baked mission. What little ground-based intelligence we have derives from secondary sources, or from political escapees whose emotionality mitigates proportionality. Californians who have travelled to North Korea are less convinced than Washington that proposing to topple a bad regime will prove any wiser in East Asia than it has in the Middle East.
Prominent California aeronautics businessman Spencer H. Kim, an advisory board member of the RAND Centre for Asia-Pacific Policy and a respected critic of military intervention, says: “We are encumbered with a full range of preconceptions and stereotypes constantly played back by both the media and propaganda to the point that reality has been distorted out of all proportion. And we are all, on all sides of this debate, unconsciously victims of the distortion.” A possibly overconfident Trump believes the US can handle North Korea, but who knows? Certainly not the CIA. Perhaps Trump could put through another call to his friend Xi. The Chinese, who have scant economic interest in observing a nuclear weapon land on its biggest market, have been urging America to stay cool; perhaps they know something we don’t.
Of course that would not be a brutally high standard, would it? Maybe the US should swallow its ideological pride, recognise North Korea (as the UN does), and get an actual working embassy up and running there – staffed with a sprinkling of especially competent, if poorly disguised, CIA agents with their ears to the ground to find out, in the immortal campaign phrase of Trump – “what the hell is going on”.
North Korea is a country about which we know even less than we did about Iraq.
Donald Gregg, a former CIA station chief in Seoul and national security aide to president George H. W. Bush, quips (but with total sincerity): “North Korea is America’s longest running intelligence failure”. It’s time to get smart.
Columnist and university professor Tom Plate is writing a book on China