White House must conquer its own chaos and stop improvising to have a robust dialogue with Pyongyang
Adam Cathcart says Donald Trump’s preoccupation with the Russian collusion scandal shows signs of breaking down the US message on North Korea
We live in strange times. In the US’ White House, the politics of misinformation have metastasised. Analysts who wish to discuss traditional US security and diplomatic interests in northeast Asia must therefore contend with an array of demented statements by the president, thick performances of outrage by his closest aides against what they call “the fake news industrial complex”, the weird convergence of US foreign policy with Trump family interests, the crimson visions of Steven K. Bannon, and of course the tendency of US-Russia relations to overshadow all else amid an expanding investigation of the Trump campaign.
Trump has frustrated and exhausted his secretary of state, is already on his second national security adviser, and has left a number of key foreign policy posts unfilled.
For all of that, in the first six months of its existence, the Trump administration has invested considerable time in the North Korea issue and demonstrated thereby an ability to function with a due level of focus. In an April 4 speech at Johns Hopkins University, scholar Jonathan Pollack noted Trump’s assiduousness with North Korea intelligence briefings, and there has been the general sense that this president has, if nothing else, succeeded briefly in appearing to change the terms of debate.
Trump took an activist approach to discussions with Xi Jinping over the North Korea issue, spontaneously sharing his tweet-sized thoughts on Chinese-North Korean relations. Both James Mattis’ remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue and Rex Tillerson’s extended remarks at the US State Department on May 3 indicated that North Korea and China’s role in influencing the DPRK has been a preeminent area of foreign policy focus.
However, the Trump administration’s desired outcome with respect to North Korea remains unclear, and North Korea policy debates may already have been submerged into the general morass of chaos enveloping the White House.
What does the Trump administration ultimately want from North Korea? The North Koreans see Trump as behaving in the pattern of his predecessors, using overt military intimidation alongside subversive sponsorship of initiatives meant to undermine the North Korean leadership and overthrow the social system.
Rodong Sinmun’s editorial of July 18 targeted James Mattis as “an old warmonger” whose assurances about the US desire for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear issue were not to be trusted.
In addition to his extensive ties to South Korean security and intelligence organisations, North Korean strategists surely noticed that Mattis has been either on the fence or entirely silent on the question of the DPRK’s sovereignty. When he was asked explicitly at Shangri-La by a reporter (it was Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times of London) if North Korea had a right to exist, Mattis sidestepped the question entirely, leaving behind an ominous silence.
Rex Tillerson has said that the US would not seek to hasten North Korea’s collapse, nor would it force reunification on Pyongyang. These statements have echoes in the new South Korean line put forth by President Moon. But Tillerson’s counterparts in the North Korean foreign ministry have only to spend a few precious minutes online to figure out that Tillerson’s words do not necessarily hold much currency with the president of the United States, who may instead be listening to the mustachioed hard liner John Bolton about both overthrowing the Kim dynasty and a future line-up at the State Department.
The North Korean government listens with exquisite care to public statements in Washington. When then-President Obama answered a viewer question about North Korea during an otherwise random YouTube live chat in January 2015, the DPRK was listening, and thereafter brandished his answer as incontrovertible proof that his policy toward North Korea was one of “strategic suffocation”.
Today, the White House preoccupation with putting out fires over the Trump campaign’s Russian collusion scandal has already shown signs of breaking down the administration’s message on North Korea. On the day that Donald Trump Jr published his now-infamous e-mails, then White House chief of staff Reince Prebius bizarrely tried to deflect criticism from Russian interference in the US election by saying that North Korea and China had interfered in US elections “consistently over many, many years”. This kind of desperation from any senior official is not helpful in conducting diplomacy.
If Washington’s message to North Korea has been incoherent, Xi Jinping’s government in Beijing has been hearing a more consistent word from the Trump administration: more. As one particularly carefully crafted question put it at the July 11 foreign ministry briefing in Beijing, the US wants more responsibility, more action and more pressure from China on North Korea. Geng Shuang’s answer was to lambaste Washington’s “China responsibility theory” for North Korea, likening the US and DPRK role in the nuclear crisis to a tai-chi duet of “pushing hands”.
What was the White House or State Department response to this pushback from Beijing, the most explicit rebuke of Trump’s approach to the North Korean problem to date? Nothing whatsoever.
If the Trump administration is looking for an ongoing robust dialogue with China on the North Korean issue, or any form of dialogue with North Korea in the next three years, the White House is going to need to tamp down its organisational and communications chaos, and stop improvising.
Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds