Making Korean Lemonade

Donald Trump bought a Korean lemon in 2018. Last week, he made some lemonade.

By walking out on his second summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Trump stepped out of the policy trap that he had entered the previous year. By showing seriousness in a negotiation that seemed likely to continue along the previous three U.S. administrations’ fanciful pattern, Trump lent force to America’s dealings with China as well as others.

Ending the North Korean “denuclearization” charade is honest and sobering. But it does nothing to meet our dire need for protection against ballistic missiles, including from Korea.

Making nice with Kim at the 2018 Winter Olympics was among the foolish legacies of Trump’s original foreign policy team. With regard to Korea, as with China, Afghanistan, Europe, and everything else, the intellectual horizon of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster was bounded by George W. Bush’s Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama’s Ben Rhodes. Like their predecessors, Tillerson and McMaster followed “the allies,” and believed in “progress.” Hence, they lent themselves to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s campaign to use the Seoul Olympics to advance his leftist party’s attempt to legitimize the North Korean regime.

Moon knew that America’s buy-in to that campaign was essential to legitimizing it with South Korean public opinion. Kim, for his part, put on his lugubrious charm. And, for the umpteenth time since his father started building nukes and missiles three decades ago, Kim offered to give them all up. This time, for sure!

And, on cue, the Americans took the bait. Again.

Ever since 1994, the U.S government had been “negotiating” with North Korea to stop, to slow, or somehow to limit its drive to build nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. soil as well as of sowing panic in Japan. Americans had delivered thousands of tons of food and fuel oil. Americans also had helped in building a light-water nuclear reactor. Economic resources being fungible, all this had only helped the North Koreans build those nukes and missiles.

One administration after the other had bet their reputations for judgment on the view that doing such things would produce greater safety for the United States. As they produced the opposite, the American participants were loath to acknowledge their own errors, lest they impeach their own judgment. Having stepped into a trap, they preferred to stay in it while pretending to have laid their own. In fact, all that had happened was more delay and deferral on the part of the United States and continued building on the part of the North Koreans .

By the time Trump took office, Kim Jong-un had a growing stock of modern, mobile, and invulnerable nuclear-tipped ICBMs. We can only guess how many he’s got now, or how fast he is building them. Alas, we know that our so-called national missile defense, carefully designed as it is to handle only a token number of missiles, already may be numerically overwhelmed by North Korea’s missiles. If it isn’t, Kim can overwhelm the system merely by speeding up his production line.

By the time Trump met Kim in Singapore in May 2018, the stage had been set for more U.S. pretense. But just before then, John Bolton had replaced McMaster, and Mike Pompeo had replaced Tillerson. They had no illusions about North Korea. The country is as much a vassal of China today as it was in 1950. North Korea’s nukes exist because they are useful to China’s drive to expel America from the Western Pacific.

As for Kim, who holds power by China’s leave, the nukes are the only reason why he is treated as something other than the obscene tyrant he is. And he knows it. There was never any chance that Kim would become homo economicus, and join the boys on the ski slopes at Davos. That is why, before the meeting, Trump had placed some heavy duty sanctions on Pyongyang. And it was already clear that China was negating them.

Remember Trump’s watchword, at the Singapore summit and afterward, was “we’ll see.” Kim had promised to denuclearize. Trump would hold him to it. Yes, he canceled some military exercises. But he kept the sanctions, which Kim and China were urging he drop. In the meantime, as the claque at Fox News painted him the magical peacemaker, author of  history’s turning point, Trump enjoyed a respite from one kind of criticism, and gave Kim and the Chinese some rope.

At last week’s summit, Trump jerked the rope.

Kim (and China, tacitly) proposed, yet again, accounting and perhaps disabling some nuclear stuff at Yongbyon—they had sold that pooch many times before—in exchange for the lifting of all U.S. sanctions. Trump walked, speaking softly. That is the least he could have done. He did it. No one else has risen to that. Trump also knows, with regard to the Korean nukes and missiles, he is really dealing with China, with which he is engaged in a high-stakes confrontation over trade.

Trade is America’s immediate leverage over China. Modern-day, super-mercantilism is one of China’s main strategic weapons. The present confrontation’s results will be pregnant with events of historic significance.

But Trump’s walkout on Kim is already having a major effect in Japan, by blowing away the fog of illusion that momentarily had slowed public opinion’s steady slide to consensus that, since the nuclear missile threat is not going to diminish, much less disappear, and since nobody is stepping up to protect Japan against it, the Japanese people must to take full, final responsibility for their own defense at the highest levels of warfare.

For better and for worse, that also happens to be Donald Trump’s view.

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About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

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