Can dealmaker Donald Trump surprise the world on North Korea and give peace a chance?
Patrick Ho says North Korea’s missile provocations are an expression of its insecurity in the face of US threats and, as history has shown, a single positive overture could help bring lasting peace to the Korean peninsula
As North Korea continues to conduct powerful nuclear tests, defying strong international opposition, US President Donald Trump continues to criticise China for doing too little to disable Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme. Does this allegation make sense?
China has always insisted on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and tried to mediate between the United States and North Korea for a peaceful settlement. This is in the common interest of all countries in the region.
The reason North Korea insists on developing nuclear weapons is deeply rooted in the regime’s insecurity, instigated by the US: and the US holds the only key to solving the Korean nuclear arms issue.
Western mainstream media tends to depict North Korea as the sole provocateur in this issue, but it takes two to tango. In the eyes of Pyongyang, every missile or nuclear test is a specific response to a hostile act by the US. Instead of turning to diplomacy, Pyongyang has chosen to fire missiles as a way of conveying messages of contempt. It is a peculiar mode of communication, but understandable given the country’s extended isolation from the international community. Given that the escalation of the Korean nuclear arms issue stems from the intensified stand-off with the US, should not Washington bear the other half of the responsibility, to say the least?
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s war of words
Take military exercises. The cold war ended long ago, but the US and South Korea never stopped their live-fire drills, naturally seen as a material threat by Pyongyang.
As early as 2015, Pyongyang had passed the message to Washington about its strong disapproval of these joint military exercises. Last year, Ri Su-yong, the North Korean foreign minister, said in New York that his country would suspend nuclear tests if the US ceased annual military exercises with South Korea.
But president Barack Obama chose to disregard the olive branch. The US and South Korea conducted their largest-ever joint military exercise, code-named “Key Resolve”, with more than 300,000 Korean and 17,000 US troops. In response, North Korea conducted five tests of its Musudan missiles.
Ri Su-yong addresses the UN Sustainable Development Summit, in New York in 2015
In early June last year, the US Treasury Department designated North Korea as “a jurisdiction of primary money-laundering concern”, and put its leader Kim Jong-un on the sanctions list. North Korea retaliated by firing several short-range missiles into the sea.
Two months later, on August 22, the US and South Korea started the “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” joint military exercises. Two days after the drills began, North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile, to showcase a breakthrough in strategic weaponry. On September 9, it conducted its fifth nuclear test.
Over the past two years, each time the US and South Korea have held a military exercise at its doorstep, Pyongyang has retaliated with missiles and nuclear tests in the direction of Japan and South Korea.
This is a special kind of “dialogue” between Pyongyang and Washington. Only the relevant parties understand the message within and the sentiment conveyed.
After Trump became president, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did manage to send out his “four nay” promises, a positive move to a certain extent. Yet the attempt was often neutralised by the hawkish words of the US commander in chief. Worse still, in bidding for higher negotiation ground, Trump started a game of brinkmanship with Pyongyang, further intensifying the stand-off. And on September 3, North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test. Past experience proves that sanctions and isolation cannot stop North Korea’s determination to become nuclear-armed, and military options will only trigger unthinkable consequences. However, a diplomatic solution still seems a bridge too far.
Trump to Tillerson: Don’t waste time talking to North Korea
The US still insists it will consider negotiations only if North Korea gives up nuclear arms, by way of a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement”.
But the motivation for Pyongyang’s nuclear programme is precisely its mistrust of the US on security assurances, and it often cites the fates that befell Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
Therefore, China has proposed a dual-track approach: conducting nuclear arms talks and negotiating a peace settlement at the same time.
But the serious lack of mutual trust makes any meaningful talks on nuclear arms impossible. To break this deadlock, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a “twin suspension” approach in March. As a first step, the North should suspend its missile and nuclear activities, in exchange for a halt to large-scale US-South Korea exercises.
This approach aims to reinstate the trust which is crucial for any meaningful negotiation, by providing each side with the necessary “mutual strategic reassurance”.
History has proved that no matter how thick the ice, it can be melted as long as the two sides are willing to take the first step.
Shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, the US and Soviet Union were both profoundly aware of the impossibility of seeking absolute security in international politics. Any attempt to do so would only see both sides ending up in a perpetual arms race.
At the height of the cold war, US president John F. Kennedy delivered a speech at the American University on June 10, 1963, later known as his “Strategy of Peace” speech. In it, Kennedy announced his first unilateral initiative: the US would suspend all open-air nuclear tests, and only resume them if others continued to conduct similar tests.
John F Kennedy address American University graduates in June 1963
The message was well received by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The Kremlin published Kennedy’s speech in full in the national newspaper. Soviet citizens were also able to listen to a Voice of America broadcast of the speech.
Ten days later in Geneva, US and Soviet representatives finally signed a memorandum of understanding on “the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line”. A Moscow-Washington hotline was set up, preventing further escalation.
The era of president Richard Nixon saw the further development of what his national security adviser Henry Kissinger called the “habits of mutual restraint, coexistence and ultimately cooperation” into a “detente” policy.
With goodwill from both Moscow and the US, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks finally bore fruit, successfully freezing the number of strategic ballistic missile warheads and laying the foundation for mutual trust for a series of future negotiations, including restrictions and reductions in nuclear weapons.
President Trump has been widely praised by his supporters for his flexibility in making deals and has been compared to Nixon. As head of the world’s only superpower, Trump should not waste time on unnecessary wars of words or accuse China of not taking up responsibility. He should, instead, demonstrate his leadership, sincerity and courage, to create the necessary conditions for North Korea to return to the negotiating table.
In his “Strategy of Peace” speech, Kennedy rejected the defeatist belief that “war is inevitable”. He said our problems are all man-made and, therefore, can be solved by man.
With the wisdom of true leaders, many seemingly intractable international problems could be resolved by a quick change of mind.
In 1972, an American president arrived in Beijing to lay the foundation for diplomatic relations with China. In 2016, another US president landed in Cuba, resulting in the end of hostile relations that had lasted for half a century.
The Korean nuclear issue is also man-made. Will Trump continue with this legacy and surprise the whole world with one magic stroke of magnanimity?
Dr Patrick Ho Chi Ping is deputy chairman and secretary general of the China Energy Fund Committee