MACK WILLIAMS. North Korea. Has Trump lost the plot?

Feb 13, 2020

The stalemate between the US and the DPRK has dragged on past the Kim Jong-un’s end of 2019 deadline.

The lack of any reference to Korea in President Trump’s recent State of the Union speech, which was expected to set out the Trump agenda for the November 2020 election campaign, is a glaring confirmation of his own uncertainty about a game plan for Korea. Seemingly he is bereft of any potentially achievable initiatives on Korea and so is seeking to diminish its importance as an election issue. This would be in keeping with the prominence the speech gave to domestic policy issues and the economy over foreign policy issues. This presents some serious policy challenges for Australia.

 In an earlier blog late last year I reported on how little progress in recent months had been made in dialogue between the US and the DPRK with year end 2019 looming. The US  had shown no inclination to compromise on sanctions while the North remained dug in against further commitment on denuclearisation unless the US agreed to a phased set of matching actions by each side. It had also become more obvious that Kim had been angered at the Hanoi Summit by the failure of Trump to accept the first tentative steps in the direction of phased negotiations which Kim had been led to believe would be on the table in Hanoi. The role of former National Security Adviser Bolton in stiffening Trump’s position no doubt will be aired in Bolton’s coming book.

Further, Kim had threatened to go back on his earlier commitments to stop nuclear and ICBM tests. His promised “Xmas present” to Trump appears not to have eventuated though speculation continues about some possible signs of preparations for an ICBM test. The import of such a test would be to highlight for the US a projected DPRK capability to strike the US West Coast. In a little publicised and probably related move the US held an ICBM test of its own just a few days before a scheduled major speech by Kim.

In this connection it is relevant to note how Trump treated North Korea in earlier State of the Union speeches. In 2018, Trump was strident in his criticism of North Korea :

“… North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland. We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening. Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.  I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position… “

He went on to indulge in another of his reality TV performances with the family of the US student Warmbier who tragically died after his treatment in North Korean detention and a North Korean refugee.

The approach in 2019 could hardly have been more different :

“As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months.  If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed.  Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one. And Chairman Kim and I will meet again on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam.”

This established some optimism for 2019. Trump’s failure to even mention Korea in his 2020 speech underlines just how far he fell short of those goals. More importantly it also  demonstrated that Trump has no even modestly achievable  game plan for North Korea in the lead up to the elections. It is difficult not to conclude that he has lost the plot on North Korea-  though many seasoned Korea watchers doubt that he ever had a coherent plan!  Unsurprisingly, with the elections uppermost in mind, he wants to reduce media attention to this issue which continues to dog his administration.

As much as Trump might want to play down the North Korea problem it is likely that Kim will assess DPRK national interests are best served by keeping it going-  even if only simmering. Though the domestic political scene in the North remains opaque and subject often to external disinformation, history would indicate that there must be some (likely arcane) background to the  very public ( at least for the DPRK) recent reshuffling of senior party and government positions. It could well have reflected Kim’s anxiety about pressures from old hardliners in the party and/or the military for him to toughen his stance against the US – given his failure to have any sanctions lifted.

No doubt also Kim still banks on using the 2020 elections as a wedge against Trump even if no significant policy initiatives on Korea emerge from the eventual Democrat contender. There are a number of provocative actions Kim could take which Trump would have to address – including a return to nuclear and ICBM testing. The Russians and Chinese have also continued to push for a reduction in UN sanctions while reportedly taking their own steps to increase covert sanctions busting.

 Coronavirus has already proved to be an interesting challenge for the DPRK given its extensive border areas and trade with China . Not surprisingly the DPRK has released little detail of coronavirus infection inside its borders though the latter have been closed with China. In a novel twist the DPRK also “closed” its borders with the ROK which amounted to the closure of the Kaesong industrial complex and the ROK Liaison office there.

Meanwhile relations between Washington and Seoul have deteriorated further – largely, but not only , caused by the US demand for a huge increase in burden sharing for the US forces in Korea (USFK). Dialogue has continued spasmodically between ministers and senior officials of both sides but these have not been helped by some off the cuff demeaning criticisms of the ROK by Trump at political rallies in his “heartland’. Nor has the US Ambassador in Seoul (retired Admiral Harry Harris) endeared himself to the Korean public with his bullying speeches and media interviews . Harris has become the epitome of a “pro-Consul” which fortunately we were spared by his appointment to Canberra being voided to allow him to go to Seoul. So predictably, his part Japanese origins have aroused Korean ire which has not been helped by his adoption of a small  Japanese moustache apparently since taking up his appointment in Seoul.

The above presents some important challenges to Australian policy in the coming months. As we learned often to our cost in the latter days of Viet Nam (when I was serving in Washington) “alliance management” is an extremely hazardous process especially for the junior partner. Anticipating major policy moves by a dysfunctional  White House becomes an art form if you do not want to be caught out and embarrassed. Australia is so locked in by its intelligence connection and senior levels of embedment in the US military we need to be very alert to likely mood changes in the White House in this election year. Despite the lack of any current sign of “give” in Trump’s position on sanctions he may well decide that domestic political advantage would accrue from steps that might allow him to argue that he is making progress in dialogue with Kim. We also need to ensure that our embedment in PACOM does not drag Australia into any US pressuring of the ROK on burden sharing. We have our own continuing issues on this with the US and the ROK is an extremely valuable partner for us in our region.

Mack Williams  former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea


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