Donald Trump recently executed a 180-degree turn on China. He had nothing good to say about the country when he was running for president. Once elected, it looked as though he might even tilt toward Taiwan. But after a tete-a-tete with Chinese premier Xi Jinping, Trump changed his mind and reversed his intention to label China a currency manipulator.
“He is a very good man,” Trump said of Xi.
Trump has no scruples about cozying up to authoritarian leaders. He counts Egypt’s al-Sisi, Turkey’s Erdogan, and France’s Marine Le Pen as friends. He recently extended an invitation to the White House to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the only major global leader to boast of personally killing people.
So, it was no big surprise that Trump declared last week that he would consider meeting with Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances.” Trump even went so far as to say that would be “honored” to meet the leader whom he labeled, on another recent occasion, “one smart cookie.”
Trump’s statement immediately elicited horrified reactions from the mainstream media, with CNN’s editor-at-large judging it a “very bad idea.”
Here’s why it’s not only a good idea but one that could possibly lead to a break-through in the long-simmering conflict on the Korean peninsula.
First of all, the two leaders have an affinity for each other. Kim Jong Un loves celebrities and flash – his previous American BFF was Dennis Rodman. Trump, meanwhile, loves authoritarian leaders who don’t have to put up with all of the entanglements of democracy. One could imagine Kim appearing as a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice and taking home the honors as the most ruthlessly ambitious. At the very least, the two leaders could swap tips about their favorite luxury items and bemoan how unexpectedly complex governance has turned out to be.
Neither leader cares much about following rules. Trump loves to defy the foreign policy consensus in Washington and put his own personal stamp on U.S. foreign policy. Kim eliminates his own family members if they stand in the way of consolidating his political position.
More importantly, the two leaders could bond on business. Much is made of North Korea’s isolation and the reclusiveness of its leadership. In fact, North Korea has made any number of pragmatic deals with unlikely foreign business partners, from chaebols like Hyundai to religious institutions like the Unification Church. It has worked with an Egyptian tycoon to set up a cellular phone system. It even inked a deal with a Macau magnate to build a casino in Pyongyang.
Trump would be interested in North Korea for two reasons. It would tickle his ego to see the Trump brand emblazoned on billboards and building sites in Pyongyang. And he and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are interested in extracting mineral resources to fuel the U.S. economy (and line the pockets of their circle of cronies).
Which brings us to the third and most audacious reason why Donald Trump might break with diplomatic protocol and sit down with Kim Jong Un. The U.S. president could decide that it was a bold geopolitical move to reinsert the United States in a region where it has been losing influence steadily to China. Kim, too, would immediately see the wisdom of the maneuver.
After all, the United States and North Korea are equally wary of China. True, both countries are heavily dependent on the Chinese economy. But North Korea has long wanted to diversify its portfolio so that it is not so beholden to Beijing. The United States, meanwhile, has been completely outmaneuvered by Beijing’s various “Silk Road” initiatives to build up the infrastructure of Asia as a way of boosting China’s own economy.
What better way for the United States to reduce Chinese influence in the region than to drive a wedge between Beijing and one of its few actual Asian allies? In so doing, Trump would be taking a page from the book of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who engineered a détente with China in the 1970s in order to play Beijing off Moscow. After decades of deferring to China, taking a backseat to South Korea (during the “sunshine” era), and watching Japan negotiate deals (under Koizumi), the United States could boldly take control of the process.
North Korea is not quite the plum that Iran or Cuba was for the Obama administration. U.S. business was eyeing both those countries with great anticipation, with energy corporations eager to work with Tehran and agricultural firms already setting up deals with Havana. Interest from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce certainly made détente with those countries more likely.
North Korea, an impoverished country with a minuscule consumer market, doesn’t offer those kinds of advantages. But China has been vacuuming up various natural resources – from coal to rare earth elements – and even building the infrastructure in North Korea to do so. If Trump goes head to head with China to court North Korea’s business, it would send a message to other leaders in the region that Beijing is not the only game in town. And unlike previous U.S. presidents, Trump wouldn’t let human rights considerations interfere with better commercial ties with the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
With Trump, North Korea might have had its best chance in decades of concluding a deal with the United States that could reduce its diplomatic, economic, and military isolation.
Of course, any deal between Trump and Kim would come with its own problems. It wouldn’t likely touch on the disastrous human rights situation in North Korea. Foreign investment would come with its own host of labor and environmental problems. It would be a victory for the worst kind of crony capitalism.
But if Richard Nixon could make a deal with China when it was in the midst of an insane Cultural Revolution presided over by a senile Mao Zedong, and if that deal represented an important step forward for peace in the region, then surely Donald Trump can do something comparable with North Korea. Such a move could help pull the Korean peninsula out of its longstanding cold war. It might even represent a lasting legacy for a president who has been so busy making a mess of international relations everywhere else in his first months in office.
Hankyoreh, May 8, 2017