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Trump’s bad news

U.S. strategy toward Pyongyang will depend on Kim Jong-un’s New Year address.
Dec 26,2017
“China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor,” according to a National Security Strategy (NSS) recently announced by U.S. President Donald Trump. When the announcement was planned for Dec. 18, we wondered how hostile Trump would be toward North Korea. But the NSS — the foreign and security policy cornerstones for the Trump administration — was mainly a declaration of a new Cold War against China and Russia.

“This strategy recognizes that, whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a new era of competition. We accept that vigorous military, economic, and political contests are now playing out all around the world,” Trump said in a speech marking the release of the NSS. Trump was making a declaration that he will compete on what political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski once described as a “Grand Chessboard,” which goes way beyond the Korean Peninsula.

The new competitive structure between the United States and China and Russia is extremely ominous for South Korea, which has to tackle its urgent issue of the North Korean nuclear threat. No North Korean issue, including its nuclear and missile programs, can be resolved without China’s cooperation or against China’s will.

The situation is similar with Russia, but to a lesser degree. Trump sees Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to bolster military power and his One Belt, One Road economic initiative as challenges to the U.S.-led global order. That is why he scrapped the cooperative partnership maintained by the Obama administration and chose the path of confrontation.

That is why the NSS said, “We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner.” It shows Trump’s determination to stop China’s ambition to realize Xi’s grand One Belt, One Road by forming a crescent-shaped Indo-Pacific alliance stretching from India to the Korean Peninsula.

The NSS had 17 mentions of North Korea, but they were familiar basics. Trump said he will resolve the North Korean nuclear problem, which threatens millions of American lives. He said a global response is necessary to counter the global threat from North Korea’s nuclear armaments. He also hinted at a military option, vowing to build a multi-layer missile defense system to destroy the North Korean missiles before they are launched.

But it was not the same Trump who threatened military solutions to the North Korean nuclear crisis in his frequent tweets. His message to the North was less of a priority than elucidating a strategy of competition with China and Russia, hostility toward Jihad terrorist groups and threats toward Iran’s nuclear program.

Given such a context, we could have some hope, albeit cautious, that Trump’s long silence in his tweets toward North Korea is not a coincidence. But it will not be a surprise even if Trump — as unpredictable as Kim Jong-un — makes a tweet tomorrow morning as provocative as his earlier message of “total destruction” of the recalcitrant state.

Washington’s strategy toward Pyongyang after 2018 will depend on Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address. The United Nations undersecretary general for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, visited Pyongyang from Dec. 5 to 9 and had a talk with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong. If the outcome of their meeting is reflected in Kim’s speech, it won’t be too much to hope that UN Secretary-General António Guterres will visit North Korea.

When asked if he had any intention to meet with Kim after a speech at the Tokyo Press Club on Dec. 14, Guterres said he was ready to make a visit anywhere, anytime, if necessary. Although U.S. Secretary General Rex Tillerson’s offer of unconditional dialogue has been reduced to an offer of dialogue tied to Pyongyang’s suspension of threatening actions, the offer of dialogue is still alive.

Tillerson is being cornered because hardliners who want to replace him with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley are working behind his back. Haley even boycotted Tillerson’s UN Security Council speech on Dec. 15.

Trump’s NSS put two enormous burdens on South Korea’s shoulders. One is whether Seoul will join Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy or not. The Blue House and the Foreign Ministry already showed differences on the issue. South Korea’s participation will bring about tensions in Seoul-Beijing relations. China’s retaliations against Seoul for its deployment of the U.S. anti-missile system may resume.

The other burden involves Trump’s plan to build multi-layered missile defense against China’s missile threats. Seoul already promised Beijing not to join a U.S.-Japan missile defense system. The dilemma here is that without South Korea’s participation, missile defense is incomplete, while South Korea’s participation would trigger China’s massive retaliations.

South Korea is in a predicament like what Odysseus faced on his way home after the Trojan War. He had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis, two great monsters, to reach Ithaca.

The pillar of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is peace through power. But the details of the NSS showed that it is also another expression of Trump’s America First policy by defending U.S. interests through power. It is doubtful how many countries will respond positively to such an arrogant U.S.-centered policy and strategy that offers little to them.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 22, Page 39

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Young-hie