Not so huge, after all …

This is an expansion (and contraction) of something I wrote on a couple of days ago.

So, it now appears that what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un put on the table about “denuclearization” was nothing more than what has been there for decades: he is, probably, I’m guessing, willing to decommission his nuclear weapons programme IF, but only if the USA guarantees that none of its nuclear weapons will ever enter South Korea … denuclearization, in other words, means for everyone on the entire Korean peninsula.

Now, in fact, the US removed its nuclear weapons from South Korean in 1991 ~ of course it’s possible that the US lied about that ~ that appears to be a deeply held North Korean suspicion ~ and that there are some there, but I believe not. Nor, I believe, are there any nuclear weapons in depots or an airfields in Japan …  except when a nuclear armed bomber lands there for a temporary stop. I suspect that the US warships that are based in or visit Japan do, always, have nuclear weapons on board. I also believe that Guam has a large stockpile of nuclear weapons for use by the US Navy and Air Force and for rapid delivery to the US Army in Korea and that, I think, is what North Korea fears.

Two articles in Foreign Affairs pertain to the forthcoming (May) Kim-Trump summit:

  • First, Toby Dalton and Ariel Levite say, in “When Trump Meets Kim Jong Un; A Realistic Option for Negotiating With North Korea” that there is a spectrum of possibilities: “On one end of the spectrum is the popular notion of denuclearizing North Korea, which usually means complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, or CVID. Although professing nominal commitment to this goal, Kim appears to be conditioning it on such formidable requirements that it is extremely unlikely his regime will actually pursue this in any meaningful time frame, no matter how hard the United States sanctions, threatens, or incentivizes it. Kim believes it would be suicidal to give up his “existential” deterrent, so complete denuclearization is simply not on the table today … [but] … Even if it were negotiable in the near term, CVID is based on an outdated understanding of North Korea’s nuclear enterprise. When the U.S. government developed the CVID concept in the mid-2000s, North Korea had conducted just one nuclear explosion test and its long-range ballistic missile program was still in its infancy. North Korea’s technical progress over the intervening decade—five additional nuclear tests and dozens of missile flights—means that a more sophisticated and intrusive approach to rolling back its dangerous capabilities is needed.” But, they say, “On the other end of the spectrum, and what North Korea might accept following a summit, is a simple temporary suspension of nuclear and missile flight testing, as Russia has suggested, for which Kim would still demand some sanctions relief or other incentive. But the Trump administration would immediately reject such a minimalist concession. After all, Pyongyang’s unchecked arsenal is already worrisome, and it can continue to grow and improve without full-scale tests;” and
  • Second, Oriana Skylar Mastro writes, in “Why China Won’t Rescue North Korea; What to Expect If Things Fall Apart” that “U.S. officials have long agreed with Mao Zedong’s famous formulation about relations between China and North Korea: the two countries are like “lips and teeth.” Pyongyang depends heavily on Beijing for energy, food, and most of its meager trade with the outside world, and so successive U.S. administrations have tried to enlist the Chinese in their attempts to denuclearize North Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump has bought into this logic, alternately pleading for Chinese help and threatening action if China does not do more. In the same vein, policymakers have assumed that if North Korea collapsed or became embroiled in a war with the United States, China would try to support its cherished client from afar, and potentially even deploy troops along the border to prevent a refugee crisis from spilling over into China … [but] … But this thinking is dangerously out of date. Over the last two decades, Chinese relations with North Korea have deteriorated drastically behind the scenes, as China has tired of North Korea’s insolent behavior and reassessed its own interests on the peninsula. Today, China is no longer wedded to North Korea’s survival. In the event of a conflict or the regime’s collapse, Chinese forces would intervene to a degree not previously expected—not to protect Beijing’s supposed ally but to secure its own interests.

I suspect that the latter consideration is what drove Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing. My guess is that he and his inner circle ~ much of which I think is on China’s payroll, already ~ understand that they need Xi Jinping much, Much, MUCH more than he needs North Korea. The South China Morning Post suggests, in fact, that while China extended the formal invitation the state visit was Kim’s idea … his request.

While I believe that any war on the Asian mainland that involves the USA would be both:

  • A regional geo-strategic, political, economic and social disaster of the first order; and
  • Unwinnable unless the word “win” has taken on a whole new meaning;

I do not, for even a µsecond, discount the possibility that the new Trump Team in Washington …

tem trump.001

 … is (relatively) unconcerned about potential consequences and is, instead, focused on immediate “returns.”

If, and it’s a big, Big IF,  my readings of the East Asian tea leaves are correct, then I think that:

  • Kim requested this meeting because he knows that ~
    • He’s being backed, father and father, into a corner from which there is only one exit: a nuclear war that will shatter the whole Korean peninsula and kill him, and
    • He needs Chinese backing to face President Trump; and
  • Xi Jinping agreed to the meeting because ~
    • He needs ~ for his own geo-strategic purposes ~ to be “in” this process IF it results in anything other than a war … and he believes that he can prevent Kim, at least, from launching such a thing ~ by having him, Kim Jong-un, killed if that’s what it takes, and
    • He wants to keep President Trump off balance.

What does President Trump need?

I think he needs a quick, domestic, public relations success through which he can be seen as having done something useful; he is focused on “quick wins that make him look good,” some American insiders told The Economist. Thus far his presidency has been a massive, doltish failure. He needs to show America ~ no one else really cares … the world fears Donald Trump but it doesn’t care about him ~ that he can make a deal. He is, of course, a lousy, failed businessman who can only make deals when he has a bankruptcy court behind him. He simply doesn’t know how to make deals, he’s a serial bankrupt who inherited the base of his fortune from his father, Fredrick Trump, who was, actually, a successful real estate developer. If he wants to be re-elected in 2020 he needs to show his base, and others, that he has managed, at least, to do something right … that something may be what Toby Dalton and Ariel Levite describe as “comprehensive and verified capping of North Korea’s threatening strategic capabilities and activities.” Such a “broad cap” they say  “could serve the medium-term interests of the United States and its two allies, Japan and South Korea, while also finding acceptance in China and North Korea.” All President Trump rally needs is for the world to let its breath out … to stop fearing that a nuclear war is just around the corner.

Xi Jinping, however, has other goals.

He is, I think, trying to position himself as the wise and trusted Paramount Leader of a great, peace loving nation. He wants China to displace America as the world’s “indispensable nation” and he intends to be in power when that happens.  China is still mounting a global soft power campaign aimed at making it, at least, the equal of America i every respect. Xi can afford to “play” a longer and deeper “game” … he doesn’t have to face re-election or possible impeachment. He will be happy with almost any deal, short of war, because he will receive credit for pushing Kim to the bargaining table.

I think that Xi Jinping, not Kim Jong-un is responsible for the “offer” to denuclearize the Korean peninsula … the offer will be immensely popular in both Japan and South Korea and, indeed, throughout and even beyond Asia.  I believe that Kim’s proposed deal cannot be accepted, but the blame that will be shard, equally, between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

Suffice to say that Xi Jinping has, as The Diplomat says, Xi Jinping did two things last week:

  • He underlined that fact that North Korea is still China’s client; and
  • He reminded the world that he is still a the key player in any matter involving East Asia.

Almost everyone wants a reunified, peaceful, prosperous (therefore capitalist), productive, democratic Korea. Just imagine how rich and productive 75+ Million Koreans will be after the necessary period of adjustment ~ remember Germany’s experience after military-west-pacific1990. The only “loser” in Korean reunification might be perceived to be the USA because it would, inevitably, lose it’s only large military foothold on the Asian mainland (Japan doesn’t count … yet) … I say inevitable because I am as certain as one can be about China that getting America off the Asian mainland is one of China’s overarching and non-negotiable strategic aims. I think it (getting American combat formations off the Asian mainland)  is almost as important as reunifying China, itself.

My guess is that the Chinese believe that Japan will not allow any major (10,000 to 25,000 troops) increase in US bases in the Japanese home islands or in Okinawa, and neither Thailand nor the Philippines will welcome major new American military bases and Guam has limited capacity and Australia is far enough away not to matter too much.

20180331_ASP505_800South Korea has the most to lose in all this and that may be why it remains very active in searching for any sort of possible rapprochement … the latest, according to The Economist, is a forthcoming (starting today, actually) tour of North Korea by a South Korean K-Pop group, the first such tour in about 15 years. Preparations appear to be as careful as would be made for a full fledged state visit.

Edited to add:

And the South China Morning Post says that the “North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sunday attended the first concert in Pyongyang for over a decade by Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 14.07.32South Korean entertainers, including a K-pop girl band, the latest gesture of reconciliation before a rare inter-Korean summit … [and] … Kim and his wife came to watch Sunday’s show, a Seoul culture ministry official said, making him the first leader of the North to attend a concert by South Korean performers … [then] … Kim said inter-Korean cultural events should be held more often and suggested another event in Seoul this autumn, the South’s Yonhap News Agency said, citing a pool report … [and] … Two other high-level North Korean officials, Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong and nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, also attended, the report said.” This ~ popular music and pretty girls ~ may be of more value than President Trump’s blustering.


As for Kim Jong-un, the Financial Post suggests that “The visit, initially shrouded in secrecy with the Chinese capital on lockdown, was seen by experts as an attempt to mend Pyongyang’s frayed ties with Beijing — its principal backer — ahead of a possible summit between Mr Kim and US president Donald Trump in May. But to others it signalled something more: the dictator’s growing confidence in his hold on power — a position that he has for years meticulously strengthened through a series of political, economic and military policies that are becoming synonymous with his reign.” That is, certainly, another valid way to read the East Asian tea leaves: Kim is showing the world, especially Xi Jinping and Donald Trump that he, Kim, has a firm enough grip on power to leave Pyongyang for a few days, secure in the knowledge that his government will remain intact … he is no pushover, in other words. That being said, North Korea is a brittle state and I suspect that, without active Chinese backing, it (and Kim Jong-un) will break under even modest pressure.

One guess as to Kim’s ultimate aim is that he wants a formal, final peace treaty which would, for the moment, anyway, legitimize his regime. My guess is that Kim’s bottom line is that he must maintain his nuclear tipped missiles, although he might be persuaded to eschew missiles that can reach the US mainland, and that Trump will not agree to leave South Korea, although I fear he could be bluffed into that if the North Koreans can push the right buttons, which is possible given his apparent inability to understand which Korea is his ally and which is his enemy ~ Rex Tillerson is right, President Trump really is moron … the end may be some easing of tensions but, at the end of the process, the status quo remains. That’s probably both:

  • About the best we, the whole world, can hope for; and
  • Good enough … for now.


 (With many thanks to Jordanian editorial cartoonist Emad Hajjaj.)


One thought on “Not so huge, after all …

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