Kim Jong-un back in the black book?  Photo: KCNA via Reuters
Kim Jong-un back in the black book? Photo: KCNA via Reuters

The Obama administration, supposedly representing the pinnacle of responsible elite forethought and expert decision-making, is about to handle the cowboys of the Trump administration a gosh-awful mess: North Korea.

For most of the Obama administration, it pursued a North Korea policy of “strategic patience” i.e. ostentatious neglect.

Cynics are welcome to regard North Korea as “America’s ISIS in North Asia,” a threat that was supremely useful as a justification for pumping more forces in the region to confront the genuine adversary — the People’s Republic of China — and whose removal, therefore, was best executed … patiently.

The strategy under a President Hillary Clinton, I expect, would have been to accelerate the campaign to ostracize the People’s Republic of China as the enemy of regional security for its incomplete sanctions regime against the DPRK; isolate the PRC by cobbling together an international secondary sanctions regime targeting the PRC (like the one that pressured Iran through its European and Asian partners); and confront the PRC with two unpalatable choices: either orchestrate the near-impossible task of denuclearizing North Korea by itself or endure a sanctions regime that placed its international financial institutions at perpetual risk.

As to the difficulty of China denuclearizing North Korea (a task Donald Trump apparently believes could be accomplished with a single phone call from Beijing), those nukes in the North point west as well as east and are not just deterrents against regime-change gambits originating out of Washington, a reality that is never discussed because, I guess, it excessively complicates the “collusive PRC” narrative.

The US strategy has taken a few knocks in recent months.

First, the Philippines, a cornerstone of the united front, has backed off from the South China Sea arbitration strategy in particular and military coordination in general with the United States since the election of President Duterte, thereby complicating efforts to position the PRC as a renegade against the monolithic US-led international order.

Second, well, Trump.  He has declared a low level of interest in overarching security regimes and an increased interest in bilateral deals including, possibly, deals with North Korea.  Other than a cavalier tolerance for a war between North Korea and Japan (“It would be a terrible thing but if they do, they do … Good luck. Enjoy yourself, folks.”), Trump’s only public policy position on North Korea to date is that he’s willing to have a burger with Kim Jong Un.

Third, while the Obama administration was being strategically patient, North Korea’s scientists chugged along in constructing a credible, deliverable nuclear weapons capability. If US intelligence assessments are accurate, sometime during the Trump administration North Korea may field an ICBM mated to a miniaturized nuclear warhead that is capable of striking the lower 48 United States.

Strategic patience might be OK when just Seoul, Tokyo, or Beijing were at risk.  But the homeland?  Time to elevate the threat level!

So, President Obama’s national security team advised Trump that the foremost security threat facing the United States was North Korea, aka Ethiopia on the Yalu if its modest economic stature is taken into account.

If North Korea’s possession of a nuclear weapons capability that could threaten the United States is deemed unacceptable — really unacceptable, that is — then “strategic patience” is retired and the options come down to putting the sanctions threat against the PRC on the front burner to persuade it to institute a total economic blockade, or some kind of disabling military operation led by the United States.

Neither or these options are particularly attractive, especially to the inhabitants of Seoul, who might be subjected to a barrage of thousands of North Korean rockets in an “End of Days” scenario.

Which brings us to negotiation: if not “Nixon goes to China” or “Trump Goes to Pyongyang,” then maybe “Donald and Jong Un hit Burger King.”

This perhaps is where US policy should have been all along.

To clarify, North Korea is not a natural or enthusiastic ally of the People’s Republic of China.  The DPRK was a client of the Soviet Union until 1989; when the USSR collapsed, the PRC did not step up.  In fact, PRC disinterest in providing timely aid to North Korea during the difficulties of the early 1990s was a key factor in the collapse of agriculture and the humanitarian catastrophe that ensued. North Korea resents the PRC as a practitioner of neocolonial economic and military penetration — one that values an impotent and isolated North Korea primarily as a useful buffer state on the Korean Peninsula — and is aware that any socialist solidarity that Beijing shares with Pyongyang is outweighed by the PRC’s solicitude for its crucial economic relationship with Seoul. The symbol of Chinese disdain for North Korea’s independence is symbolized by the “Six Party Talks,” a futile talking shop convened under Chinese auspices and detested by the North that the US perversely promotes as a suitable mechanism for DPRK engagement.

I expect Kim Jong Un enjoys goading the PRC as well as the United States with his nuclear and missile tests.  The PRC is only able to give half-hearted support to the subsequent blizzard of sanctions and condemnation, thereby sending the message to South Korea that China is — in contrast to the United States — an occasional, fair-weather friend.

Especially since Kim Jong Un took over — and signaled a turn away from the PRC by executing Chang Song-thaek, his uncle and steward of the DPRK-PRC relationship — North Korea has been advertising its desire to negotiate an understanding directly with the United States as long as the existential issue of its nuclear weapons programs is not on the table.  The analogy North Korea is encouraging is with Burma/Myanmar: a resentful PRC satellite normalizes relations with the United States and gives a brisk kick in the behind to China.

DPRK outreach has floundered thanks not only to its parade of missile and nuclear tests but, I believe, because normalization of US-DRPK relations calls into question the US posture in North Asia as protector of South Korea and Japan from North Korean mischief, and would reveal that the US is keeping its massive presence in East Asia solely to contain China — and respond to the occasional typhoon/earthquake disaster.

It was desirable, in other words, to let the North Korea situation fester productively by insisting on an endgame — North Korean denuclearization — that was virtually impossible.

But now there’s Trump and the US security regime in East Asia is slipping into disarray.  Japan recently signed a bilateral intelligence-sharing agreement with South Korea and subsequently played the THAAD card, a sign that US commitment to protecting Japan against North Korea’s improved offensive capability is now in question, and that Japan is quietly supplementing/superseding the United States as the primary security player in North Asia.

Meanwhile, South Korea is melting down politically.  Kim Jong Un, if not the only adult in the conversation on the Korean Peninsula, is at least not being driven from office by millions of protesters for being under the thrall of a sinister neo-shaman.

Good time for North Korea to reiterate its rather simple and straightforward proposal, as the official DPRK news outlet did on November 29:

U.S. Should Make Decision to Withdraw Its Hostile Policy toward DPRK

The theory of “denuclearization of Korea” was buried in the grave of history. The Obama group makes desperate efforts to evade from the shame of failure, but in vain.

The Obama group is preaching the new administration to follow its policy, far from drawing a lesson from the fact that it turned the DPRK into a nuclear power through the persistent enforcement of the “strategic patience”. The group hopes that the new administration would wipe away the bitter disgrace it suffered in the DPRK-U. S. confrontation.

The U.S. should discard its anachronistic daydream, though belatedly, and make a decision to withdraw its hostile policy toward the DPRK, clearly understanding the latter’s strategic position.

If the United States is really interested in North Asian security, Trump will take North Korea up on its offer and collect a straightforward bilateral win.

If North Korea is an indispensable stalking horse for a forward anti-China policy, America’s (and Japan’s) military and foreign policy professionals may prevail on Trump to muddle on with the current denuclearization/sanctions strategy instead of kicking another prop out from under the U.S. security architecture for Asia.

If the United States decides the best way to deal with the looming threat of DPRK nuclear-tipped missiles is to ignore North Korean outreach and kick over the chessboard with a decapitating strike … well, I predict we’ll be wishing Trump and Kim had gone out for burgers instead.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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