By Rutherford Johnson
The world continues to be abuzz about the Singapore Summit in June of this year between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Trump’s allies hailed him as a peace-making hero who succeeded where others had failed, a tough, no-nonsense American where his predecessors had allowed themselves to be pushed around. Trump’s opponents, unsurprisingly, say quite the opposite. Some of us around the world, however, were and remain unconvinced that anything has actually happened just yet and will wait to see how this all plays out in the long run before rendering judgment.
Indeed, this game between North Korea and the West has been going on for a while. The North Koreans rattle their nuclear sabres in a rather successful bid for attention. The result is usually some form of economic aid, food aid, and diplomatic assistance for North Korea, who agrees to “stand down” and reduce their nuclear programme.
The Kim family has kept power and part of that is not only the material assistance but their ability to showcase their strength by getting attention from Western powers through military-related displays. The West got to look like they had successfully kept a “rogue state” at bay and made the world safer. It has been the same with Kim as it was with his father, only the son’s position was indeed more precarious as he was young and had to establish his rule against apparent internal dissent. Kim’s regime made threats against the United States, and the threats were ever-bolder than before, given the North Korean nuclear missile programme.
However, one only needs to have a cursory understanding of strategic theory (such as that of Clausewitz) and basic geographical knowledge to know that it makes little if any sense for North Korea actually to deliver on those promises. A nuclear attack on the US, for example, would easily result in the utter annihilation of North Korea – or at the very least the forceful removal of the Kim regime by the US. In either case, the Kim family would lose with total certainty, so it is virtually inconceivable that the threats should be taken seriously. This again emphasises that this is a manoeuvre with underlying economic motivations, as Kim wants to get the attention of the West for the purpose of more economic assistance. This is the basic game, and it is one that the Kim family has played masterfully for quite a while.
Furthermore, it should be remembered that the present leader of North Korea was educated in Europ and he understands the Western mind a lot better than many of his counterparts from the old regime in North Korea, and indeed quite possibly better than most Western leaders understand Asian culture. It appears he sees how things are changing in his own country and the world, and it stands to reason he would use his background and education to play the game better, changing tactics to meet the new situation to achieve the same strategic goal – economic survival, political stability, and the personal power that comes from both.Graffiti depicting Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, by artist Lush Lux, in Vienna, Austria. Credit: ChinaFile.
Understanding the role of the US
What about the role of the U.S. in the present situation? Listening to the news media build up before the summit, it certainly sounded as if a nuclear attack was a real and distinct possibility. People demanded the government to do something about it, yet, given the strategic insanity of an actual nuclear attack by North Korea, could the portrayal of the situation by the US government and media have been an engineered “problem” to pose the US as the “solution”? Those who have seen the Dustin Hoffman movie Wag the Dog would have no trouble believing that to be a possibility. Even, the musical The Music Man, in which travelling conman “Professor” Harold Hill convinced a town that their pool hall was a major social problem and then offered a solution to that “problem” – for a price, of course. One need not look only to fiction, however, for pretexts for wars and convincing the public that there is a problem that must be solved is nothing new. History is replete with examples of the same.
Reasons behind the threats
What might be the motivation for such an exaggeration of the threat? By simply looking at the actions in the context of what could be a reasonable strategy for both sides, inferences can be made.
One possibility is that Kim’s nuclear programme and comments gave the Trump administration the seed necessary to water the plant of a serious nuclear threat that put national security and the lives of Americans at severe risk. The fire was stoked by U.S. responses, such as that of Vice President Mike Pence who made a threat that North Korea would end up like Libya (surely a reference to the bombing of Libya and the eventual death of Muammar Gaddafi). Kim’s response to the threat then provided even more ammunition for the Trump administration to build up the image of the threat. Once a “problem” had been established, Trump was poised to be the ‘solution” – the peacemaker.
An olive branch was offered in the form of a summit that would supposedly end the nuclear threat once and for all. Of course, the aforementioned tension between Pence and Kim resulted in the summit being cancelled by Trump – the form of brinksmanship he perhaps learned in the corporate boardroom that has much more serious consequences on the stage of international diplomacy. Then the summit was back on – credited to the Trump team, while the efforts of the Chinese were virtually whitewashed from American media. The summit provided photo ops – Trump and Kim smiling and shaking hands, suggesting peace, and the U.S. and North Korean flags flying next to each other, suggesting that the dictatorship might transition into a democracy (no doubt the idea would be for it to be an American-style democracy).
What were the actual results of the summit?
Unfortunately, although the summit helped to end open concerns for many, the document that both leaders signed ultimately was very vague and did not result in a definite promise of denuclearization. It was very much like a Memorandum of Understanding that is quite popular in Asian culture in which two parties agree to try to work together. The Asian concept of such an agreement is quite different from the American/Western concept, which is more contractual. Yet, both leaders appeared as peacemaking heroes to their own people and as the losers to the other side – even though nothing of substance has yet happened.Trump with Vice Chairman Kim Yong-Chol of the North Korean delegation in Washington DC. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Of course, in Trump’s case, it is more complex as his supporters portray the summit as the most significant peacemaking event in history, while his detractors are even said to be hoping the deal falls through so they do not have to credit Trump with success. Indeed, if the deal falls through, in the US it will be blamed on Kim. As it stands now, Kim apparently is continuing to grow his nuclear programme as he did not, after all, promise he would end it, even though that is how it was depicted right after the summit when Trump was portrayed as the peacemaking hero. It seems that the “wait and see” approach before rendering judgment on success or failure of the summit is well justified. Still, it’s all a game of smoke and mirrors, feeding the biases and preconceived notions of one and all. We see what we want to see and ignore the rest. Since we do not all want to see the same thing, markets, which are not fond of instability, surely will at least be somewhat confused by this recent deal. It may take them a bit of time to figure out actually how to respond.
Also troubling in the summit agreement was the U.S. suggestion that they will work towards the removal of their troops from the Korean peninsula. That was an equally-vague statement, but one that makes little sense. It is true enough that American military presence in other countries bothers some, but at least from the US and allied perspective, US bases in Korea are of significant strategic importance. They provide a well-established forward operations base in the region, allowing response times to be reduced dramatically and providing better supply and logistics support. To say that a denuclearized, democratic North Korea removes the threat is also to ignore the Chinese threat – an interesting combination of military and economic.
For example, the Chinese built up a reef in international waters in the South China Sea and militarized it, threatening American ships in the process. What would ordinarily have been considered an act of war was dismissed by the US, allowing the Chinese to dig in even deeper. Such action on the part of the Chinese understandably breeds concern that they could exercise significant control over major shipping channels with obvious economic impact. That alone should give the US pause for thought before they decide to remove their troops from the Korean peninsula. Then again, nothing has happened yet other than a vague agreement that the Kim side has technically not violated from their perspective but has violated from the American perspective. Now, only time will tell the rest.
Final straw: tariffs
On top of all of this is the new set of tariffs placed by Trump on China, the US’s top trading partner, not long after igniting a trade war with their second largest trading partner, Canada, in June. Economists rarely if ever support the idea of a trade war or tariffs because of the loss of efficiency and the harm they can do to the economy. Even if there is a favourable outcome for the US, the trade war approach to the problem will not be welcomed by the international community.
One could replace “threat of tariff” with “threat of cruise missiles,” to achieve the desired trade concessions, and certainly not be justified in the approach, despite the outcome. Reports are already suggesting that, ironically, many of the very people who helped propel Trump into office are being harmed by these tariffs. Threatening to do harm or doing harm to get one’s way is at the end of the day, nothing more than bullying. It may be the way of Trumpian big business, but we should all expect more in international diplomacy.
Are these new events that are continuing on as I write, really something different, or do they appear that way because people see what they want to see, confirming their own biases and pre-existing beliefs? Nations, it seems, need enemies to keep people under control and leaders in power – at least in dictatorships and democracy. For a dictatorship, focus on an external enemy helps to unite the people and solidify their rule – at least as long as things go well. For a democracy, it is similar, but perhaps a bit more complex. An enemy helps create a need for the military industrial complex, which then fuels the economy, helping to create internal stability and continued rule by a political figure or political party/parties.
For the US, an enemy with which a real war is highly unlikely and would be highly lopsided in military capability is surely easier than picking a fight with someone one’s own size. It provides benefits without the same level of real risk. Likewise, for North Korea, an enemy (in this case, the US) with which a real war is highly unlikely gives the benefits of propelling a unified front behind the Supreme Leader without the same serious risks of a war going badly. A hot war with high cost and many casualties that is almost impossible to win could easily cause a loss of support for Kim and a breakdown of the system.
Rational people certainly hope for peace, better living conditions, freedom, and economic prosperity for North Korea. Time will tell if that will be the outcome.
Rutherford Card. Johnson (PhD, FPRS) is a cleric, author, and economist teaching economics and international business at the University of Minnesota’s Crookston campus.
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