President Trump has embarked on the most important foreign relations trip of his tenure. Of note are his visits to South Korea, Japan and China. The principle issues that will be addressed are the continuing belligerence of North Korea and threats by Trump directed towards the country.
The perspectives of the countries mentioned above and the US are all important in the search for peace in this part of the world.
Let’s begin with South Korea. It is surrounded by China and North Korea. In response to this, the country has relied upon its relationship with the US for protection. Nevertheless South Korea is a major trading partner of China. In recent days it has conducted negotiations with China in an effort to gain its support and assurances regarding North Korea. The relationship with China has always been strained by the military partnership South Korea has with the US.
The most important issue for South Korea is to avoid war. Even though the country is vastly superior to its evil twin to the north, South Korean leaders understand that a war will devastate their country. Seoul, its capital, is just a few miles from the border with North Korea and threatened by heavy artillery and many soldiers. South Korea will be a big loser in a US/North Korean conflict, so it must do everything possible to prevent it.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un wants global recognition. The only way to achieve this goal, in Kim’s mind, is to develop a nuclear capability. Without it North Korea has no status and very few allies. Its military strength could give it a seat at any negotiating table.
You might be asking yourself how we have reached this critical moment. Years of appeasement by China and the US have paved the way for Kim and his predecessors to build a formidable military presence that includes nuclear weapons. Not only is North Korea on the verge of developing such a weapon with an ability to strike targets hundreds and even thousands of miles away, it also amassed a huge army, and stationed powerful conventional weapons on its border with South Korea.
Why did China enable North Korea all these years? The existence of two Koreas has afforded China a sense of security, a buffer between it and the democratic world. Chinese leaders have studied the unification of Germany and concluded that a similar fate for Korea would favor a new democratic state with a strong US military presence on its southeastern border. The US already has thousands of troops and armaments in South Korea along with a considerable naval presence in Asia. China wants to preserve this buffer at all costs and discourage immigration from North Korea into China.
Why didn’t previous administrations effectively deal with the growing nuclear threat from North Korea? Frankly they kicked the can down the road never thinking that Kim would ever have the ability to launch a missile thousands of miles and threaten the US homeland.
It is questionable why China considers the US a greater existential threat than Kim. Xi of China seemingly has a relaxed attitude about the presence of a madman at his front door, as opposed to a unified, peaceful and free nation. Chinese leadership thinks that war with the US is a greater possibility than problems caused by Kim threatening South Korea, Japan and the US with nukes.
What is the Chinese endgame? Unification of Korea led from the south is a non-starter because of the strong military alliance between South Korea and the US, although this has been strained in recent months. China similarly does not want further increases in missile defense systems throughout South Korea.
The actions of China may become more confrontational with the US, or more receptive to a lasting deal that leads to the denuclearization of North Korea. Xi has been elevated to a status equal to Mao during the recent party meetings in his country. His power is unlimited and uncontested after he purged all potential challengers. He is in a position to make bold moves at this time.
One last issue that is worrisome to China is the migration of North Koreans into China for any reason. For sure this would accelerate if violence were to occur. China is a closed society and does not want more mouths to feed.
The US has one primary objective. It is to protect our homeland and our allies, South Korea and Japan, from a nuclear attack by North Korea. The only sure fire way to accomplish this is denuclearization. This possibility is remote unless China demands it or the US attacks North Korea and China stands by and allows it happen.
Trump and the US are in a very tenuous position. Are threats empty like those for 70 years? Or will the president increase tensions? This game of chicken could become deadly in the months to come.
As discussed several times on this site, it is unknown how close Kim is to having a nuclear weapon that can reach US territory accurately. Once he has this capability war could become inevitable.
On the other hand China maybe in a position to intercede. It will not turn away and allow the US to obliterate North Korea unless the latter initiates a conflict. Xi’s relaxed perspective could change dramatically based upon the conversations he will have with Trump in the next few days.