Commentary: Rising tensions between the United States and North Korea

    By Linda Shiundu

    Tensions surrounding North Korea, have risen sharply since Trump took office. Pyongyang has continued its pursuit of nuclear weapons even as the new president has declared the status quo is “unacceptable.”

    President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy – based on tactics and transactions, rather than strategic vision –Trump has confounded America’s allies and strategic partners, particularly in Asia – jeopardizing regional security in the process.

    With all of this, it’s hard to know if war is actually imminent or if these are the growing pains of US President Donald Trump’s new administration figuring out how to deal with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

    In Asia – which faces serious security, political, and economic challenges – Trump’s reversals have only exacerbated regional volatility. With so many political flashpoints threatening to trigger violent conflict, the last thing Asia’s leader’s need is another strategic wild card.

    Yet, in Trump, that is precisely what they have. The US president has shown himself to be more flicker.


    January, Trump – who is perpetually learning things that most other people know -announced that China had total control over North Korea.

    This month, after meeting China’s leader, he announced that “it’s not so easy” for Beijing to force Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program but he still went ahead and tweeted that “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea.”

    So far, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy consists of declaring that America’s patience has run out, refusing to negotiate, hinting at preventive war, and hoping that China bails it out.

    The United States has a tendency of attacking dictatorship governments, but when those dictatorships turn into failed states, it’s their neighbors that suffer the consequences. China wants stability on its border to prevent experiences like what Jordan endured after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

    China is less afraid of a North Korean nuclear explosion than a North Korean political implosion, which would send refugees cascading across its border. But China also fears that North Korea’s collapse will lead to a reunification of the Korean Peninsula on South Korean and American terms. That could leave U.S. troops on China’s border for the first time since 1950.

    Ending its nuclear program and freeing its 25 million people would be the greatest advance of human freedom since the end of the Cold War. But if the Trump administration is to have any chance of moving in that direction, it must begin thinking not only about what China can do for America but what America can do for China.

    The Chinese won’t strangle an ally just because Trump promises not to start a trade war that would hurt America as much as them. But the Trump administration could at least begin a conversation about how to alleviate Chinese fears of reunification. It could support warmer relations between Seoul and Beijing.


    The problem is that this type of thinking runs directly contrary to the mentality Republicans inherited from the Cold War. As Trump’s foreign policy has become more conventionally conservative, he seems to have embraced the conventional conservative myth about Ronald Reagan: that Reagan brought down the Soviet empire through ideological pressure and unyielding hostility.

    Like the George W. Bush administration, which thought it could curb Iran’s nuclear program by branding Tehran a member of the “axis of evil” threatening “preemptive” war, and refusing to negotiate until Tehran stopped enriching uranium, the Trump administration is now ruling out direct negotiations with Pyongyang and openly threatening a military strike.

    This is terrible policymaking based on historical ignorance. Yes, Reagan built up America’s military, aided anti-communist regimes and rebels, and morally condemned the U.S.S.R. But by 1984, Reagan’s genuine terror of nuclear war and his concern that his warmonger reputation might imperil his reelection, had led him to shift his rhetoric.

    Reagan didn’t force Gorbachev to release Eastern Europe from Moscow’s grip by refusing to negotiate and threatening war. Quite the contrary. By making America appear less threatening, he helped convince Gorbachev that the U.S.S.R. could safely relinquish its Eastern European buffer.

    Even if China wanted Korea’s reunification, Xi Jinping has less influence over Kim Jong Un than Gorbachev had over Erich Honecker. And given its booming economy, Beijing can afford to subsidize its North Korean ally far more easily than Moscow could afford to prop up its clients in Eastern Europe.

    If the Trump administration wants to have any chance, it needs to allay Beijing’s fears about a future without Kim Jong Un. That means making the United States appear less threatening, not more so.

    It would help if Donald Trump discovered the real history of the end of the Cold War. But that might require him to read.

    • Linda Shiundu is a political expert for Khuluma Afrika, specializing in matters affecting Syria, United States, The Korean Peninsula and Arab States

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