Is Donald Trump about to have a “Nixon in China” moment? The signs are that his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may actually deliver a diplomatic success instead of descending into a disastrous war between the two countries.
This contradicts the conventional wisdom in the US national security establishment. It says that Trump made a mistake in not insisting that North Korea abandon its nuclear missile programme as a precondition of the summit.
This brings us to the hypocrisy of the US demand for the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula.
What this actually means is that North Korea, and not the US as well, renounces its nuclear weapons. For most of the Cold War US forces based in South Korea were armed with nuclear weapons. Some 28,000 US troops remain there, backed up by offshore naval and air forces with extensive nuclear capabilities.
Alex Wellerstein of the Stevens Institute of Technology told the Observer newspaper, “People like to talk about North Korea as ‘crazy’. The absolute ‘craziest’ thing they could do is give up their nuclear deterrent in a situation where they have an aggressive nuclear-armed enemy.”
Assessments such as this may apply the warped rationality of a capitalist system driven by competition between firms and states. But they show that, brutal Stalinist dictatorship though the North Korean regime may be, its aim is survival.
So Kim reacted to the near-collapse of the North Korean economy during the 1990s by allowing the development of private trade, which has stimulated economic growth.
Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea, told the Financial Times newspaper that Kim’s notorious ruthlessness has targeted senior people in the party and the military.
He has been “only killing people [holding] guns … He has not touched a single economy manager. If you are a bank manager, you are safe. In six years, he has had seven ministers of defence, which is as many as his father and grandfather [North Korea’s previous rulers] had combined in 60 years.”
But, judged by his own standard of economic success, Kim is definitely under pressure. Since taking office Trump has campaigned for China to push North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programme.
At the end of the Cold War China took over Russia’s role as patron of the North Korean regime. In 2015 China accounted for 85 percent of North Korea’s imports and took 83 percent of its exports.
It looks like Trump’s campaign has paid off. Trade figures suggest China more or less cut off exports to North Korea of essential products such as petroleum, coal, steel, and motor vehicles towards the end of last year.
Meanwhile North Korea’s trade deficit with China has doubled and it is spending its foreign currency reserves to pay for essential imports. Experts predict that the reserves may run out by the end of the year.
So Kim, after taking an armoured train to Beijing for an audience with his Chinese patron Xi Jinping, is meeting first South Korea president Moon Jae-in and then Trump.
Confirmation that both sides are serious came when it emerged last week that CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s next secretary of state, has been to North Korea to meet Kim.
And North Korea’s leader is talking about concessions.
He seems to have dropped Pyongyang’s traditional demand that the US pull its forces out of South Korea. Although why the US is still there 65 years after the end of the Korean War is one of those questions that no one seems to ask, let alone answer.
Kim is also talking about a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended that war. And last Friday North Korea announced that it would hold no more nuclear or missile tests. Sceptics were quick to point out that it may well have developed its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities to the point where it doesn’t need any more tests.
But even if the talks do get somewhere, they won’t end the great power contest between the US and China. For Trump the Koreas have always been pawns in that much bigger game.
Crises are on the horizon