President Trump is now taking aim at Xi Jinping, the ruler of China, for sabotaging the North Korea talks.
The US President met with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in on Tuesday. The purpose of that meeting on Moon’s part was likely to try and prime Trump for his proposed meeting with Kim Jong Un.
But how much difference a week makes, huh?
Instead of trying to impose a script on the famously un-scriptable President Trump, Moon Jae-in had to fly in just to try and convince The Donald to keep the summit on the table. This after Kim Jong Un again (predictably) started acting like the tyrannical anti-US dictator that he really is.
The North Koreans cancelled their planned talks with the South, which had been scheduled for last Wednesday. And they cast a shadow of doubt over the possibility of a Korea summit actually happening. They complained both about the US-South Korea joint military exercises (which they’re more or less always complaining about anyway), and groused about John Bolton being Trump’s new national security guy.
Moon Jae-in tried to soothe Kim Jon Un’s (obviously feigned and theatricized) concerns. He withdrew from an air training exercise with the US and Japan this month. That’s essentially all Moon Jae-in has got in his foreign policy toolbox, though. When your mean northern cousin starts throwing a fit, capitulate to their demands and just hope they stop flailing.
Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t really worked.
There are a few things that could have caused Kim Jong Un to return to his usual ways. The first and most likely answer is that he’s simply doing what his father and grandfather before him did many times with great success. Throw a shit-fit, rattle your saber, and hope the US throws you some sacks of rice for your starving peasants without demanding anything meaningful in return.
If North Korea does that often enough, they can stay alive while they finish building out a nuclear capacity that will entirely insulate them from the possibility of invasion by any sane nation. The truth is that they are probably already past that critical line anyway. They already have South Korea by the balls.
Now it’s just a matter of surviving long enough to reliably threaten the American mainland. Once that happens, Kim can basically hold the world hostage. And he could demand a whole hell of a lot more than some bags of rice.
It’s a very good strategy for an isolated nation with few friends on the world stage. It worked fantastically for China in the sixties and seventies. And hey, eventually the Chinese started to liberalize and modernize a little. Sure their country’s still pretty rough in a lot of places. But it’s getting a lot better. And it’s getting better fast.
It’s likely that Kim Jong Un wants the same thing for his little Hermit Kingdom. And Xi Jinping, the president of China, almost certainly wants to help him do it. They have met together twice now in recent months. And whatever Xi is saying to Kim in these meetings, it’s probably having an impact on Kim’s behavior.
North Korea has always been a useful political tool for the Chinese. Like a little dog with a very high-pitched bark, they attract attention. They cause concern. Then China gets to come in and show their relevance to the world by reigning in their grouchy neighbor. North Korea’s existence, and its consistent bad behavior, give the Chinese a reason to stretch their foreign policy muscles in Asia.
Trump probably gets that. He probably also gets that Xi is trying to convince Kim not to deal kindly with the U.S. If the Korean peninsula were to be reunified, it would remove a very important buffer between China and the U.S. military bases in Japan and Korea. The Chinese care a great deal about keeping North Korea where it is as a buffer against potential invasion. (They did a great job dying for the Chinese in the Korean War, after all.)
More than that, any political upheaval in North Korea means the Chinese will have to deal with waves of starving refugees trying to cross over into China. (Some might try to brave the minefield-riddled DMZ between North and South Korea, but most would probably go further north into China.) That’s a pickle that Xi Jinping would really rather not deal with.
The other day at his meeting with Moon Jae-in, Trump said this: “I will say I’m a little disappointed, because when Kim Jong Un had the meeting with President Xi, in China, the second meeting—the first meeting we knew about—the second meeting—I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong Un,” Trump said. “So I don’t like that. I don’t like that.”
And of course, he has every reason not to like it. Any sign that Xi Jinping is taking Kim Jong Un under his wing ought to be met with displeasure by the American government. After all, China is the biggest obstacle still in the way of Korean reunification.
And they’re not going away anytime soon.