Opinion | Morgan Liddick: The Kims and Trump
On Your Right
Last week, nothing happened in U.S.-North Korean relations. Nothing happened the week before, either. Nor for a while before that. Which is a good thing and an illustration of how President Donald Trump’s Korean policy improves upon that of his predecessors.
We all remember how past saber-rattling by the Kim of the day would bring negotiators running, tumbling over themselves to be willingly bamboozled by empty promises from the hermit kingdom. How the latter would undertake solemn commitments to eliminate their nuclear program and otherwise comport themselves better if only there were some minor concessions, like the lifting of economic sanctions. And how, after a few years of smooth sailing, there would be renewed naughtiness and invective, ending in another round of crises and gunpoint negotiations.
Kim Jong Un, the latest iteration of North Korea’s dictator in a bad suit with a worse attitude and a tenuous grasp of reality, blew up a building last month. It had housed the North-South liaison office and assorted other bureaucracies associated with South Korea’s fitful efforts to reach some sort of modus operandi with its crazy-uncle-in-the-basement neighbor to the north.
Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, apparently a more homicidal member of the current crop of ruling Kims, announced recently that North Korea had no interest in negotiating with the U.S. unless it is offered “major concessions,” including lifting of all economic sanctions. She threw in military threats against South Korea and railed against North Korean defectors being harbored there, calling them “human scum” and “mongrel dogs.” Separately, there were references to hacking and other attacks against the United States. And rumblings from Pyongyang that both missile testing and nuclear weapon construction were back on the menu.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun responded to this bizarre sequence by essentially saying we sought no negotiation with North Korea and that their threats and bluster reflected “… an old way of thinking.” Nothing further was offered.
Many longtime observers of North Korea and the Kims think the current sound and fury is a way to regain the attention of Trump as a step toward obtaining sanctions relief on a North Korea battered by a faltering economy and — in all probability — serious COVID-19 outbreaks.
It’s an oft-used page out of a depressingly familiar playbook: the Kim-of-the-day tantrumizes, threatens and acts badly; world leaders, usually led by the United States, rush to reassure the tiny extortionist that they have no designs on his territory and offer all sorts of benefits if he will just behave again. In return for concrete favors and payments, they receive vague promises that are usually broken before the negotiators are out of the room. But this time feels different. Trump isn’t taking the bait.
Washington’s laconic response to North Korea’s foot-stomping has got to be extraordinarily frustrating for the Kims and for Xi Jinping’s China standing behind them. For the mini-tyrants, prolonged silence is the worst possible response: There’s nothing to use as a distraction from the worsening state of the already-wretched population. Plus, to a ruling ultra-elite accustomed to being catered to when in the midst of a conniption, silence is ominous. It’s almost as though one’s annoying behavior not only doesn’t impress, it doesn’t even register. Although the 7th Fleet is now cruising to the South in force.
The Trump administration’s quiet is equally problematic for China. Previously, Beijing could use its Korean client state as a naughty little sock-puppet bogeyman when a distraction from Chinese bad behavior was necessary. They could even use the Kims to enhance China’s image as a mediator and dealmaker.
Now, however, Beijing must worry about what might happen should an increasingly aggressive and desperate North Korea take that one step over the line. How far is China really willing to go to defend the nuclear-armed, unbalanced and homicidal Kims? Alternatively, if the regime finally collapses because the Kims are too dysfunctional to negotiate a real solution to their problems, how will China deal with the flood of refugees pouring over their southern border in search of something other than grass to eat? In neither case will the outcome work to China’s benefit.
All done through the Zen of doing nothing. Trump seems to be following the advice sometimes misattributed to Sun Tzu: “Sit on the riverbank long enough, and you will see the bodies of your enemies float by.”
Effective and economical: a clever package.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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