Friday, May 18, 2018

Pivot or no pivot?

If you’re following me on Twitter (and everybody should), you would have seen me post this PBS NewsHour story, that includes a picture of newly minted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo eagerly — and I mean with apparently great enthusiasm — shaking hands with a grinning not-so-newly-minted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

And then you would have read my tweet essentially saying that it may sound crazy, but I think it’s possible that what we are witnessing here may actually be North Korea willing and trying to make a pivot away from China and toward the United States and South Korea. Which would be epic, legendary, the stuff that changes history (and may potentially win one or two leaders a deserved Nobel Peace Prize if it comes with a resolution to the Korean War and peace on the Korean Peninsula, which it probably would).

I added that the coming days may present a golden opportunity for the US, South Korea, and even Japan, but that I’m not so sure President Trump — who utterly lacks knowledge of Northeast Asia, including why North Korea does what it does — is up to the task, though I hoped maybe Pompeo is. If anyone would know how to tap into Kim Jong-un’s Western upbringing (he was educated in Switzerland) and his possible desire to be the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea and pull his country out of the morass so that they’ll love him instead of fear him, it would be Pompeo (as long as he came with a bag of goodies, a very big bag).

And I was all set to crank out that post, when this happened: North Korea canceled talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel the upcoming historic sit-down between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

There could be so many reasons behind this, from North Korea’s fears that they’ll end up like Libya’s leadership (deposed and executed), to merely it being a hardline negotiating position. I’m hoping for the latter, but in case it’s also the former, we need John Bolton to start shutting his mouth. Like starting in 2005.

I’m still holding out for the possibility that a pivot could happen. North Korea relies on China for so many things, but at the same time resents that. Kim Jong-un may be tired of North Korea being China’s “little brother,” while reaching out economically to South Korea, the United States, Japan, and possibly Taiwan could offer a better future. There are (as far as I’m aware) no Chinese military bases in North Korea to worry about, and Pyongyang is experienced at sealing off its border to the PRC and Russia, so it could be done. The trick is getting North Korea to see how it benefits them.

And managing a pivot is something Trump can do that Obama would have had trouble doing. Not because he’s an excellent negotiator (in fact, such a deal would require the U.S. giving a lot of things to the North) but because Republicans in Congress will let it slide if dealing with a murderous regime (i.e., the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka North Korea) means dropping sanctions, holding your nose, and giving them money or allowing U.S. corporations and individuals to do business there, whereas they would have screamed bloody murder at Obama had he tried the same.

So here’s hoping we’re at that moment in history where everything is lined up just nicely for North Korea to drop its guard and embrace the West. But first, gag Bolton and tie him up in a closet and take away Trump’s Twitter phone.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Beijing on board

US President Donald J. Trump asks, via Twitter (because where else?), where his groundbreaking summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should take place, should it take place at all:

There are loads of places that would fit the criteria of neutrali-ish ground, accessible to someone who only wishes to travel by train (i.e., Kim Jong-un), and worthy of such a historic moment. Mongolia would be about as neutral as you can get and still be in the region. Vladivostok, which is not terribly far from the Russia-DPRK border, could be an interesting choice that would let Russia know they are not being left out.

Meanwhile, Japan is out, since that is probably just too far a boat ride from North Korea’s east coast. South Korea could play host, but they are too much of an American ally in the overall picture to be a neutral player, despite South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s adept diplomatic efforts to bring all sides together.

My vote is Beijing. Not just China, but the capital and symbol of PRC power. Sure, China is no neutral party, being in North Korea’s corner for decades, but one simple fact makes this the optimal choice: Barring some absolutely seismic shift where North Korea throws its hands up in the air and basically drops all its offensive positions, China must be an active and willing participant in whatever agreement results from all these meetings.

We name monumental agreements from historic sit-downs after the cities where they took place: the Yalta conference, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement. Imagine, if you will, the Beijing Accord. Imagine denuclearization of North Korea and an opening up of DPRK’s economy to the United States, Japan, and South Korea, if not the rest of the world. There is no way Beijing would allow the Beijing Accord to be scuttled or fail. The Vladivostok Agreement, maybe. The Ulan Bator Treaty, perhaps. But never the Beijing Accord.

And as long as the yellow dust has passed, Beijing would be a lovely place to visit in late spring.