Trump Trip: Listen to Japan, Talk to South Korea and Dictate to China
Geopolitical experts like to overcomplicate matters. Donald Trump’s first trip to Asia as president is, in reality, simple. All he has to do on the three initial stops—the most important of the five visits—is listen to Japan, talk with South Korea and dictate to China.
The selection of the first stop is significant. Fortunately, long gone are the days when American leaders signaled Chinese preeminence by beginning Asia trips with Beijing.
In these “Japan passing” years, Japanese prime ministers pleaded with U.S. presidents to adopt more resolute, determined policies with regard to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Arrogant, distracted and negligent American leaders ignored the advice, which is one of the reasons the American people are in such peril today. It’s time Washington put an end to this unbroken record of underperformance.
Trump, to his credit, has already developed a good relationship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, so listening to him will not be either novel or hard. And it is also a good sign that Trump, at Abe’s request, will be sitting down with Shigeru and Sakie Yakota, the parents of Megumi Yakota. North Korean agents abducted the thirteen-year-old in November 1977 in her hometown of Niigata, bringing her to the North.
Kim Jong-il, the predecessor of the current North Korean despot, admitted during a 2002 meeting with Junichiro Koizumi, then Japan’s prime minister, to abductions of thirteen Japanese, including Yakota. The kidnappings of the young girl and others highlight the grotesque nature of the Kim regime and remind us that, as a succession of Japanese leaders have told their American counterparts, North Korea cannot be allowed to hold the world’s most destructive weapons.
In Japan, therefore, Trump need only listen.
In South Korea, he should talk to Moon Jae-in, the “progressive” president who took office in May. Moon, if he had his way, would be supporting the North Korean regime with aid, trade, and investment, effectively giving Kim Jong-un the means to build an even more fearsome arsenal.
So far, Trump has done a good job in restraining Moon from implementing his version of the “Sunshine Policy” of “engagement” of the Kim family regime, but the forty-fifth president by no means can declare victory. Moon, whenever, the opportunity presents, will be seeking to build bridges with the North.
Up to now, Kim Jong-un has rebuffed Moon’s overtures, but sometime soon the North Korean will switch course and hold his hand out for South Korean cash. In the meantime, President Trump needs to convince Moon that it is in his interest to support American policy even if it means he must spurn offers of “cooperation” from Pyongyang.
Also Trump needs to talk with Moon about his recent reconciliation with China. For more than a year, Beijing has been prosecuting an ugly campaign first to prevent Seoul from deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and then to punish the South for actually doing so. The Chinese have been outraged that Seoul went ahead over their objections to base THAAD, as the American-built anti-missile system is known, on South Korean soil because, among other reasons, they felt its radars would peer into China.
Tuesday, the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministries issued a joint statement putting the feud behind them. Some are speculating that Moon gave Beijing secret assurances in order to end the spat. In any event, Tong Zhao of the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy suggested to CNN that the joint statement was Beijing’s way of undermining the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Trump needs reassurance from Moon, who has harbored pro-China views throughout his career.
Finally, Trump should listen to and address South Korean fears that the United States might not defend the South. These days, the country’s politicians, like many in the region, are skittish about American staying power. The periodic B-1 overflights of the peninsula are more about messaging resolve to Seoul and Tokyo than conveying threats to Pyongyang and Beijing.
So in the South Korean capital it would be good for Trump to both talk and listen.
In Beijing, Trump should insist on doing all the talking. As Beijing’s diplomats are fond of saying, “he who has tied the knot shall untie it.” The Chinese in fact tied the North Korea knot by providing two—and probably three—generations of Kim leaders with the means to make nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, so it is up to them to take away these instruments from the 300-pounder whom they sometimes call Fatty the Third.
And Xi can untie this particular knot. Having consolidated his position as China’s dominant political figure at the just-concluded Communist Party 19th National Congress and its First Plenum, he has no excuse not to marshal Chinese power.