By: Philip Bowring

US President Donald Trump may have a bigger nuclear button than Kim Jong-un but he has been so obviously outsmarted by Kim that his next books should be “How to Lose Friends and Not Influence People.”

It has been clear for some time that Trump’s obsession with Kim and the nuclear issue has come to not just  overshadow but to undermine other US interests in Asia. Perhaps he thought that the small, fat Kim could provide him with a relatively easy win, with any difficulties blamed on China. At least that seemed easier than confronting China’s continued South China Sea moves, or forcing China to face trade access demands focused on reciprocal access.

Trump’s overblown threats and crude language towards Kim have succeeded very well in making huge numbers of South Koreans more afraid of Trump and his erratic ways than of their enemy to the north. Having been living with the northern menace and its overblown rhetoric for decades, Seoul prefers by a long way a US-backed status quo to the possibility of military action against Pyongyang motivated not by defending the South but removing a purely notional threat to the US.

Trump thus played directly in the hands of the North. The new president in Seoul, Moon Jae-in, has seen his dovish instincts, and his popularity reinforced by Trump’s threats. This opened the way to Moon’s proposal to use next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as an opening to the North by enabling their participation. Seoul effectively gave the US no option but to agree to postpone military exercises till after the Olympics.  

Kim has responded by reopening the hot line phone link with Seoul and is now amenable not only to discussing Olympic cooperation but other issues as well at a formal meeting at the DMZ. When Moon first suggested the North’s Olympic participation last summer, it was rejected. But now Kim (and doubtless China) has seen it as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

It is quite likely that discussions at the DMZ, whether over the Olympics let alone bigger issues, will go nowhere. Back in 1988 when Seoul was host to the Olympics, South Korea’s president Roh Tae Woo had been agreeable to allow some minor events to be held in the North. But discussions bogged down over Pyongyang’s demands for nearly half the events. However, the significance now lies in just having any exchange on the subject at a time of high tension over the nuclear issue and Trump tweets.

There may be little long term substance in these mutual moves. North-South relations have been on a roller-coaster for years and there is scant chance of the fundamentals changing soon. But the US has been left looking isolated, its relations with a major east Asian ally damaged. Meanwhile the Japanese, despite their tradition of clinging to America’s coattails look on, worried that Trump’s words are – as is obvious – mainly benefitting the country which above all is challenging US power – China.

Trump’s apparent belief that Kim can be forced to abandon his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is shared by almost no one, the US closest allies included. Even his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, appears not to believe it either, nor does his now-estranged pal Steve Bannon. But the Secretary’s job hangs by a thread and his views on the need for diplomacy take its course are no longer heard. Instead, US policy, or at least its Trumpian echo, appears increasingly in the hands of his assumed successor, Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and a novice on international affairs but now US representative at the UN. She is so far best known for her threats of military action against the North, and backing for moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and other provocations which have infuriated US allies as well as critics.

On the ground, tighter sanctions on the North are apparent, as evidenced by the South’s arrest of vessels supplying it with oil by trans-shipping on the high seas. They may help to persuade Kim to pause and not make any more missile or bomb tests for the time being. Indeed, the renewed contact with the South suggests that Kim is moving into a “nicer guy” phase, having already achieved most of what he wants in nuclear and missile development.

But the US purports to believe that Kim can be made to surrender what he has got, refusing any meaningful talks until he agrees to do so. This is a mirage. The Kim dynasty has shown often is the past that it will resist, however many of its citizens starve as a result of sanctions or its military spending. Even if true that China and/or Russia are covertly supporting the North, trade sanctions by the US will simply cause China to retaliate. If the US wants to use the trade threat against China, its own interests suggest that it should be to force China to reduce barriers to the investment and service sectors.

In short, Trump’s obsession with Kim is further undermining the US position in Asia at a time when Xi Jinping is leaving no one in any doubt that efforts toward Chinese hegemony in east Asia will continue – and the possibility of using force against Taiwan is again being raised in approved academic circles. As a sign of creeping belligerence, the South China Morning Post, owned by Alibaba boss Jack Ma, ran a long article by Yu Yongling, a leading member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, saying that having failed to resolve the Taiwan issue through trade and exchanges, from a strategic as well as national pride viewpoint, there is a growing sense that the issue has to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Force is thus the only means for the reunification which Xi could then use for justifying his remaining in power after 2020. Yu went on to link this possibility with that of war between the two Koreas. All that is of course mere speculation but from a semi-official think-tank it is noteworthy – and worrisome.