On Thursday, President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his resort in Mar-a-Lago for their first summit meeting. While it is not clear what will come out of this two-day meeting, what will certainly be on the agenda is North Korea. But is Trump and his administration ready?
Trump has barely staffed up the upper echelons of the State Department or the Department of Defense and on Sunday, in an interview with the Financial Times, Trump yet again claimed that “China has great influence over North Korea.”
But, as North Korea expert Jenny Town made clear in an interview with China Law & Policy, China does not have the influence over North Korea that Trump thinks it has. “China’s current relationship with North Korea is not very good either, especially compared to past years” Town told China Law & Policy. “I think that there’s a lot of problems with the way that people think about China’s influence on North Korea, and I think they really over estimate that influence.”
And in a way, Trump underestimates the influence that the U.S.’ rhetoric has on North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. “I think some of [North Korea’s] antagonism with China is maybe also somewhat triggered by all this U.S. talk of ‘if we just push China enough, China will take care of this problem'” Town told China Law & Policy.
In his interview with the Financial Times, Trump also stated that if China won’t exert its influence – which, in reality, may not be that strong right now – the U.S. will go it alone. But will it really? Any actions the U.S. takes with North Korea will have a strong impact on South Korea and Japan, important strategic allies in the region with populations that will unfairly bear the brunt of the U.S.’ bellicose engagement with North Korea. In terms of a preventive strike on North Korea (preemptive strike is in fact a misnomer in this situation according to Town), “North Korea is almost guaranteed to have some kind of response. The response might not even be directly on the U.S., but again our allies in the region” stated Town.
Now if the Trump Administration’s idea of going it alone is one-on-one dialogue with North Korea, that could actually be game-changing. According to Town, the Obama Administration’s policy of
“strategic patience” – where it ignored diplomatic relations with North Korea and instead doubled-down on sanctions – was a failure, allowing North Korea to rapidly advance its missile technology. The Trump Administration has stated that it rejects the policy of strategic patience. But in her interview, Town questions if that is true, especially if the Trump Administration is just looking to issue more sanctions: “[W]hen [Secretary of State] Tillerson said strategic patience is over, we all look at the things that he talks about after that. Those are really just tenets of strategic patience. So again without negotiation you’re still just doubling down on the same tactic and hoping for a different result. Even if you’re making them harder-edged, it’s still not a new tactic. Again, if it’s been ineffective now for eight years, what makes you think just pushing a little harder is going to help?”
To listen to the full podcast of China Law & Policy‘s exclusive interview with Jenny Town of the John Hopkins’ US-Korea Institute, click the media player below (total time – 37:08). To read the full transcript, click here.