Donald Trump’s latest eruption – saying that his threat of fire and fury didn’t go far enough – will have delighted Kim Jong-un. His demented regime is based on the idea of being on the brink of war with the United States: this conceit has been used to build a nuclear weapons arsenal that has cost billions of dollars and millions of lives. He ran 24 missile tests and two nuclear tests last year and still didn’t get a rise out of Barack Obama. Then along comes Donald Tump and: bingo. Kim has finally found someone with whom to play nuclear poker. To many in Washington – and the world – this seems insane. Trump’s verbal and emotional incontinence seems to be playing right into Kim’s hands, needlessly and senselessly escalating the situation.
But as I say in my Daily Telegraph column this morning, there is method behind Trump’s madness. It’s ten years since Capitol Steps came out with How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea, and since then North Korea has managed five nuclear tests – each of them a stepping stone to the goal of being able to threaten to nuke the US mainland.
Last month, Kim successfully tested a missile with enough range to hit Los Angeles (or London). This missile test was stunning proof of the failure of the previous 25 years of policy:
You get the idea. While this palava has been going on, the Kims managed to get five nuclear tests under their belts – each of them a stepping stone to the goal of having missiles that could threaten the US, guaranteeing the survival of the regime. So is it really so crazy to say – as Trump is doing – that to repeat the failed cycle of talks is unlikely to stop Kim Jong-un getting to the next stage: fitting a nuclear warhead to his new long-range missiles? A new tactic is plainly needed, and soon. It will be a push for Kim Jong-il to develop the technology to miniaturise and deliver a nuclear bomb. But he’ll keep pushing.
Trump’s eruption – and his hyperbolic rhetoric – fits a pattern. All of his officials have been talking tough on North Korea, saying that its latest trick – developing a missile that could reach America – goes too far. H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, is speaking of a ‘preventive war’ and Jim Mattis, Trump's defence secretary, warns that Kim is acting in ways that could ‘lead to the end of [his] regime and the destruction of [his] people’ because North Korea is ‘grossly overmatched’. So it’s wrong to dismiss this as nothing more than madness from The Donald: the grown-ups in his administration are all saying the same thing. That they are serious about not tolerating Kim’s acquisition of a long-range nuclear missile. As Joseph Dunford, his military chief, is saying: ‘Many people have talked about the military options with words such as unimaginable’ but ‘it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korea's nuclear capability’.
But crucially, their rhetoric is directed at China. Even Trump isn’t so naïve as to think that his words won’t play into Kim’s hand. The thinking is that China has more power than anyone else to rein in Kim. The Chinese are quite brutal about this: they don’t care that their neighbour has turned into a prison camp run by the mafia. Beijing does not want a united (presumably capitalist and pro-Western) Korea and it is quite happy to have a lunatic destabilizing the Americans. So it has played along: supplying trucks to transport missiles and allowing its state banks to help the North Koreans get around sanctions.
And why not? China’s double-game has long rested on a core assumption: that the Americans will not do anything rash. But it’s a brave man who makes that assumption with Trump the White House. So the sabre-rattling is not aimed not at Kim, the idea is to persuade China that the threat of American military action is real, and that it would prefer bloody chaos in Asia to a situation where a stable North Korea is able to threaten America with functioning long-range nuclear weapons. So the US strategy is to say: ‘You think Kim is crazy? Meet Donald Trump, he’s even crazier – and he’s actually commander-in-chief of a genuine nuclear power’. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says, Trump’s weapon is his language – it can cut through when more diplomatic language does not. And if this strategy terrifies the rest of us: well, so be it. The aim is to focus minds in Beijing.
There is a second scenario that the US is outlining to China. What if Kim gets his nukes, and a future US administration is paralysed – deciding it won’t sacrifice an American city for the defence of Korea? Then China would have to imagine a region without America’s nuclear umbrella. H.R. McMaster is already describing this. Japan and South Korea have not been been drawn Kim’s nuclear arms race because they can rely on Uncle Sam. But what if they couldn’t? Both can afford their own nukes, so you could end up with a multi-polar nuclear standoff. McMaster thinks that this prospect is, for China, as terrifying as conflict in North Korea. As he said last weekend:
‘The United States’ extended nuclear deterrence - extended to our allies - has been key to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons [in Asia]. If that nonproliferation regime is broken, it’s bad news for everybody. And so imagine now a Northeast Asia with a nuclear-armed North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, right? And so, is that what China wants? Is that what Russia wants? No. I mean, so it is in all of our interest to insure that North Korea denuclearizes.’
And here is the final, crucial point: the Trump administration believe that this is working. The good cop/bad cop routine persuades China that a diplomatic solution is possible, and that the alternative is real and awful. In the last few months China has suspended imports of North Korean coal, Kim’s main income source, and has cut the supply of crude oil. It was instrumental in setting up the latest UN sanctions regime. To McMaster, there has been a breakthrough: China accepts it does have huge leverage, and is prepared to use it. He also believes China now shares the ‘clear objective’ of the US: no just to freeze tests, but to dismantle the weapons that Kim has.
Trump, in my view, is perfectly capable of messing this up by over-reaching, over-hyping and inflaming the situation into something beyond his control. But my point: there is more to this than his nutty Tweets. There is a clear strategy, aimed at focusing minds in China, and it might just work. But I’m not hugely optimistic.