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Trump Has an Opportunity to Reduce Tension between America and North Korea

Eric Gomez

Donald Trump’s marathon trip to East Asia is off to a good
start. Trump’s time in Japan was characterized by the warm personal
relationship between him and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who
reaffirmed the approach of applying maximum pressure on North Korea
via sanctions and increased military cooperation to force Pyongyang
to denuclearize.

However, the trip is far from over and there are lingering
questions about whether the North Korea crisis will escalate and
about the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship. Trump’s visits
to Seoul and Beijing will provide important information about the
administration’s approach to these two pressing regional security
issues.

South Korea: Damage Control or More Fuel for ‘Fire
and Fury’?

Trump’s speech to South Korea’s National Assembly is
an inflection point for the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
Frequent North Korean ballistic missile tests, the test of an alleged
hydrogen bomb in September, and a steadily escalating war of words
between Pyongyang and Washington have created an astoundingly
dangerous situation. Both sides appear to fear preemptive military
action by the other, and the risk of a minor dispute or accident
spiraling out of control is very real.

The crisis is largely one of Trump’s own making. His
“fire and fury” comment in early August was a poorly
constructed deterrent threat that was imprecise about both what it
was trying to prevent and what punishment the United States was
willing to inflict.

The next month Trump made matters worse when he called Kim
Jong-un a “Rocket Man … on a suicide mission” at
the UN General Assembly. First, it suggested that Kim is an
irrational actor who cannot be negotiated with or deterred. Second,
Kim took the insult personally, which makes it harder for Pyongyang
to come to the negotiating table, and he regarded it as a sign of
Trump’s weakness, which could make other U.S. statements less
effective. Kim is not blameless in the current crisis, but the
United States is already accustomed to bombastic rhetoric from
Pyongyang. Trump’s decision to fight fire with fiery rhetoric
has only made the situation worse.

Trump’s speech to the National Assembly is an opportunity
for the president to do some much needed damage control or pour
fuel on the “fire and fury” rhetoric. His statements in
Japan were firm but mostly boilerplate diplomatic speak about
working closely with an ally to apply pressure on a shared threat.
Greater pressure on Pyongyang will not necessarily result in
denuclearization or other successful outcomes, but a rhetorical
shift away from “fire and fury” could calm down the war
of words and somewhat reduce short-term tensions. Trump’s
military and diplomatic advisers have likely prepared a National
Assembly speech that emphasizes cooperation with allies and a firm
but measured pressure campaign against North Korea. Trump could
improve the situation in the Korean Peninsula by sticking to the
speech and not hurling impromptu insults or vague, sweeping threats
toward North Korea.

China: Storm Clouds Ahead?

A number of policy decisions early in the Trump administration
created a perception among many American China-watchers that his
time in office would be a gift to Beijing. This viewpoint contends that
America’s withdrawal from multilateral initiatives such as
the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Agreement
diminish U.S. prestige and influence in the world, allowing Beijing
to portray itself as a responsible global leader. Moreover, some
U.S. analysts have expressed concern that Trump’s focus on
North Korea could lead to a less confrontational policy toward
China in areas like the South China Sea or Taiwan in order to get
more help from Beijing.

It is unlikely that Trump will do much damage to the U.S.-China
relationship while in Beijing, but Trump’s visit to Japan and
statements by high-ranking administration officials in the lead up
to his trip hint at a downward turn in the relationship in the near
future.

A White House press statement summarizing the
results of Trump’s visit to Japan points to deeper U.S.-Japan
cooperation on regional economic and security issues that are not
in China’s interests. A press release noted that Japan and the United
States will cooperate to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific
region” with the aim of providing “infrastructure
investment alternatives” to other countries in the region.
The implied target of this effort is China’s One Belt, One
Road (OBOR) initiative, which uses massive infrastructure
investment throughout the region to extend Chinese influence. Trump
also praised Japan’s defense cooperation with the United
States and called for more sales of high-end U.S. military
equipment to Tokyo. Neither of these initiatives is a gift to
China.

Several public statements by high-ranking administration
officials shortly before Trump left for Asia suggest that the
results of the Japan visit represent a new normal in the
administration’s approach to China. In an early October
hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of
Defense James Mattis said, “Regarding [OBOR] … there are
many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself in a
position dictating ‘One Belt, One Road.’”
Approximately two weeks later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
outlined the administration’s approach to U.S.-India
relations, calling India a “pillar of democracy” and
pushing for greater cooperation in regional economics and security.
High-profile criticism of OBOR and support for India, a major
geopolitical rival to China, point to a more adversarial U.S.-China relationship in the
offing.

Trump’s diplomatic odyssey in East Asia will produce
important insight into his administration’s strategy toward
this pivotal region. A strong showing in Japan offers a solid
foundation for the president to build upon, but there are many more
stops to make before he returns home. He should not pass up the
opportunity to rein in the dangerous crisis on the Korean
Peninsula, and he should clearly state a coherent strategy for
U.S.-China relations before returning.

Eric Gomez is a
policy analyst for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato
Institute.