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The North Korean Nuclear Clock and Donald Trump

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By Elodie Pichon

Time is running out until North Korea acquires a missile-launched nuclear bomb. In 2016 alone, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and over 20 ballistic missile launches in total disregard of international law. Experts assume that in about five years, North Korea might develop the capacity to strike the West Coast of the United States with a nuclear warhead. The security threat is real, and the attitude of the president-elect, who claims that “he loves war” and “wanna be unpredictable” is far from reassuring.

Trump’s isolationist policy will to put an end to the Obama administration efforts to curb nuclear proliferation could undermine the security in the region. He clearly expressed his will to have a world in which there are even more nuclear powers than we have today and suggested that South Korea and Japan acquire nuclear weapons. The aim is to reduce the pressure on the USA to come to their defense when North Korea is aggressive. But such a situation would reverse the balance of power and would highly undermine the region’s security since China would view the nuclearization of either country as a threat.

Trump also expressed his will to remove American troops from Japan and South Korea if they don’t pay more. In January 2016, he said, “we are defending South Korea, we’re defending so many countries, we get peanuts.” Trump did not mention, however, that Seoul paid the US $886 million toward the upkeep of American troops in 2014 alone. If the US does decide to remove its troops of South Korea’s soil, its security might be seriously undermined at a critical time. President Park Geun-hye of South Korea cooperated closely with the United States, particularly when it came to dealing with North Korea. Her impeachment and the uncertain stance of Trump on the issue might give North Korea total freedom in completing its nuclear program. Trump’s will to let South Korea and Japan defend themselves is not only dangerous for the region, but also for the USA themselves who are the direct target of North Korea. Trump relies on China to solve the problem.

But Trump’s will to outsource the problem to China both overestimates American leverage on China and China’s influence on North Korea. Even if China is responsible for 90% of North Korea’s trade, it is not true that Beijing holds all the cards and has “absolute control on North Korea”. In addition, it is equally false to say that America has absolute control on China. Trump did say that he would “force China” economically to solve the problem but he has not indicated how economic pressure on Beijing could force its hand on Pyongyang. If it is true that China is dependent on the US to export a fifth of its products, the US also need China who controls some of the US most important products supply chain. It is necessary for the US to keep good trade relations with China, but also diplomatic ones. Indeed, the US and China’s cooperation is crucial since the United Nations sanctions to punish North Korea for its fifth nuclear detonation in September depend on China, which accounts for most of North Korea’s trade, as well as food and energy supplies.

But Trump has already picked up a fight with China by speaking on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This is only undermining the potentiality of a coordinated response towards North Korea. Indeed, in reaction to Trump’s phone call with Taiwan, China’s Global Times newspaper threatened to provide weapons to anti US forces if Trump puts an end to the “one China policy.”

Trump’s will to let South Korea and Japan be nuclear, and to outsource the North Korean problem to China are both dangerous for the region and unrealistic. However, his desire to speak with Kim Jung Un could be a good start in order to negotiate with North Korea. Until now, the strategies led by the USA to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclearization ambitions have not been successful. Both Bush’s policy of pressure and Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” haven’t managed to curb the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles by North Korea. Obama fixed North Korea’s disarmament as a precondition to enter into dialogue. Such a strategy relied on the assumption that Kim Jung Un would react rationally, realizing that North Korea’s self-isolation would not be viable. The “strategic patience” policy also under-estimated North Korea’s capacity to further strengthen its nuclear capabilities. However, negotiating with North Korea without pre-conditions might be necessary but would have a high price: it supposes to give up on the human rights of people in North Korea in exchange for regional peace and stability. The new administration would have to end its “hostile policy.” The US has to prove not only to North Korea but also to China that they seek to remove the bomb, and not the regime, in order to engage in a less confrontational path. Indeed, China is concerned by the influx of refugees who will cross its border, and also by a unified peninsula under the protection of the American military. Focusing on the de-nuclearization objective only could make China more likely to cooperate substantively.

For now, Trump’s stance over the issue is very unclear and will very much depend on who he surrounds himself with. Trump said he was ready to talk to the leader of North Korea over a hamburger but his advisors might be reluctant to that. John Bolton, the deputy secretary of state, was a hawkish ambassador to the UN under George W Bush, and is not likely to recommend a “hamburger diplomacy” with Kim Jung Un. Furthermore, North Korea calling him “a human scum” is not a good start for negotiations. To add another complicated layer to the mix, the incoming National Security adviser, Mike Flynn, argued that China and North Korea had ties with jihadists in the Middle East. Needless to say that such a statement is not a good start for negotiations and for cooperation with China over the North Korean issue. Finally, Trump’s secretary of state Tillerson is a businessman with no foreign policy background. Thus, it might take time for Washington to adopt a clear stance on the matter. But there is no time for tergiversation, since North Korea is likely to have enough fissile material for about 20 bombs by the end of this year. Removing US troops from South Korea and Japan, campaigning for nuclear proliferation, and outsourcing the North Korean problem to China are extreme positions which would put an end to the current efforts of the Obama administration. It would also destabilize the security dynamic in the region. Will Trump keep these dangerous positions as a president? Or will Trump choose to be more moderate? It seems more likely that Trump will give up most of his provocative propositions as a president, or use such extreme positions as a leverage for negotiations. But Trump doesn’t have any foreign policy experience, or apparently any clear view on the issue, and neither does his administration. The absence of any strategy and the uncertainty of Washington policy are clearly worrying.

Elodie Pichon has a bachelor in Law and Political Science at the Catholic Institute of Paris and is currently doing a MA in Geopolitics, territory and Security at King's College London

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