When it comes to policy, it seems that President Trump is determined to beat his own path. Nowhere is this more true, or more obvious, than in his stance towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Instructed by outgoing President Obama that North Korea would be his most serious international challenge, the President is looking to break away from the precedents of his presidential predecessors. Currently, Trump obviously favors a move away from the era of ‘Strategic Patience’ and towards a ‘Peace Through Strength’ approach by bolstering the US and her allies. But perhaps the most advantageous move would be to replace trading words with Pyongyang for talking trade with Beijing.
If President Trump is serious about getting tough on North Korea – and the quotes coming from figures such as Nikki Haley indicate this is policy rather than mere posture – perhaps the surest way to enforce behaviour change from the Kim regime would be to place a hand on Sino-Korean economic ties and slowly apply grip. Nuclear missiles may be the regime’s insurance policy, but it’s lifeline is the trade it enjoys with China. The northern neighbour accounts for 57% of North Korean trade, and the bite of a recent ban on coal and other imports is beginning to sting, seriously hampering Pyongyang’s ability to raise hard foreign currency. It is obvious that the removal of the trade northwards would have demonstrably more effect than any further tightening of the already tourniquet-like sanctions in place in Western nations. As the biggest supplier of food, energy and hard cash, perhaps it is time to harness the power of the Chinese economy.
In the DPRK it is likely easy to convince people that missiles are key to standing up to a bullying America. But it will be much harder to convince them that there is more bread than yesterday – the spectre of a failing economy may force Kim Jong-Un to roll back his nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions. But this is not as simple as it seems. As Vladimir Putin stated as he rejected calls for an embargo on the Asian nation; “They’ll eat grass, but they won’t abandon their program unless they feel secure.” Crippling sanctions have been used before, but the state has always preserved itself – even if millions of North Koreans must be sacrificed.
A bold move would be to bring to a close the prolonged state of war that exists between the two Koreas. Although this is unlikely, it would provide North Korea an elementary stability that most nations lack. Existing in a permanent state of war, with a far more capable – and newly hardened – opposition force on the southern border (who happens to be backed by the US) is not a situation many governments are used to dealing with. This goes some way to explaining why North Korea is considered such an ‘irrational actor’. The move would also sit well with Beijing, as China is focussed almost entirely on maintaining stability in North Korea.
Donald Trump must convince them he wants the same – and that a nuclear-capable North Korea would result in a situation even more unstable than it currently is. China may like having Pyongyang sat between it’s border and the nearly 30,000 strong deployment of US Marines in South Korea, but Trump must persuade them that there is no need for China’s ally to gain nuclear capability. If Washington wishes to utilise Chinese trade in order to end Kim’s ambitions, offering a more moderate line on trade relations between the two countries could be what Xi Jinping needs to swing his line of thinking in with the West vis-a-vis North Korea. The West can try to cripple the rogue state, but the harder the economic sanctions, the more important China’s involvement becomes. No one can hurt North Korea like it’s closest ally.