It can’t be comforting that after the recent two-day meeting at Mar-a-Lago between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, no real progress was reported on China’s willingness to get tougher with North Korea by imposing much more stringent economic and banking sanctions, or to facilitate talks between North Korea and the U.S. on the ongoing nuclear standoff.
While U.S. security hawks would howl, there is a potential way forward articulated by John Delury, associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Delury argues that Trump, using his negotiating skills outlined in “The Art of the Deal,” could have his administration engage in bilateral negotiations with Kim Jong Un’s regime, with the immediate goal of bringing about a North Korean nuclear freeze. Delury believes achieving this goal would set the conditions for Kim to start improving North Korea’s economy.
Could such an approach even get to first base? The professor cites Trump’s comment last year during the presidential campaign that he “would have no problem speaking” to the North Korean leader. But so far there is no indication that Trump or senior members of his foreign policy team are thinking about such an out-of-the-box approach.
Instead, at the end of the second day of the Trump-Xi meeting, Trump ordered the U.S. Navy Carl Vinson carrier strike group to turn around and proceed to the waters off the Korean Peninsula, a clear show of force that Kim and his regime must view as highly provocative. Indeed, a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it is “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.”
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Trump followed up the next morning with one of his signature and highly provocative tweets: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.” It was a stick in the eye to China and Xi, whom Trump had praised at the end of their discussions, saying “tremendous progress” had been made and describing the U.S.-China relationship as “outstanding.”
Can any rational person with any knowledge of U.S. foreign policy and the highly fraught nature of global politics describe Trump’s tweets as anything other than reckless, ill-advised and irresponsible, while increasing the chances of a war with North Korea? And make no mistake about it: Any of the military options being contemplated by the U.S. would prompt swift and severe retaliation by Kim, including North Korea launching some number of chemical and nuclear weapons, which most defense experts expect would survive the initial American strikes. With major South Korean and Japanese cities targeted, civilian casualties would probably be in the millions, and damage to South Korea’s and Japan’s gross domestic products would be severe. Both countries are top U.S. trading partners, so the shock to the American economy would be significant.
And is there anything we, the American public, can do about Trump’s recklessness on an issue in which the risks and stakes are so high? Not much, except to hope and pray that the national security and foreign policy “adults” in his administration, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis and Nikki Haley, can save Trump from himself, trying to keep him off Twitter and not letting him order an attack against North Korea until all diplomatic, economic and preventative defense and deterrence measures are given a chance to work.
It would also be an excellent idea for Americans to contact their representatives and senators expressing dissatisfaction with their reluctance to criticize Trump despite the chaos and ineptness of his administration. What will it take for these politicians to speak out and put the good of our country and the fate of our allies in northeast Asia ahead of partisan domestic politics? Who knows, but we can only hope they will garner the moral courage to do so before the onset of a highly destructive war on the Korean Peninsula.
Myron J. Griswold is a retired U.S. Army colonel and an Army War College fellow.