Now that the shock of President Donald Trump’s decision to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in May has worn off, it’s time to consider the broader strategic implications of how the US can best approach Kim’s lethal regime in particular, and Asia in general.
Let’s start with the tactical: Trump’s remarkable gamble of essentially “taking a meeting” with Kim is a fascinating new twist on traditional diplomacy. It will certainly capture headlines, but will it really change anything? Doubtful. To reverse the old cliche of “it’ll get worse before it gets better,” the likelihood is that this one will get better before it gets worse (again).
The likelihood of Kim ever giving up his nuclear weapons approaches negative infinity. After all, the reason he is willing to slow his program and come to a meeting with Trump is not the president’s “fire and fury” rhetoric. That makes him, like Pinocchio, a “real boy” in the world of nuclear powers. He will never give that up, especially having watched other dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi topple after walking away from their weapons of mass destruction.
Kim’s so-called peace offensive is the result of three things: the enormous cost of this program relative to his nation’s economy; how swiftly he has advanced his nuclear program’s technology; and China’s willingness to actually enforce some United Nations sanctions. The Olympics in South Korea provided a convenient moment for him to dispatch his sister Kim Yo-jong to trot out the best-known maneuver in the North Korean playbook: Come to the table, get everyone excited about “peace in our time,” demand and receive concessions, and revert to bad behavior.
Still, with all these caveats, we should still open talks with North Korea. Anything is possible, especially in a dystopian and unpredictable (but not irrational) regime like North Korea. So let’s have a conversation, hopefully with a well-briefed, historically grounded negotiating team backing up our poorly briefed and highly mercurial president. Tactically, there is little to lose. But more importantly, let’s take a strategic look at how to play the hand of cards.
While the US certainly ought to be mindful of North Korea’s growing nuclear capability and intercontinental ballistic missiles, they are in the end a highly tactical and isolated concern. Instead of putting North Korea at the center of our Asian agenda, we should step back and consider what America's real interests are in the region. North Korea is not the centerpiece of our Asia-Pacific strategy. What really matters?
First and most important are the US relationships with key allies, partners and friends. These range from treaty allies whom Washington is sworn to defend -- Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand -- to nations with whom it shares very close political, economic and defense relationships.
The latter include Singapore and Malaysia, and now increasingly India, Vietnam and Indonesia. Our most vital interest is ensuring we maintain our principle advantage over China and Russia: that network of close partners.
Second, we should recognize that the relationship that truly matters in Asia is that between the two dominant Pacific powers: China and the US. We need a coherent, thoughtful, long-term strategic approach for dealing with China that encompasses -- but is not dominated by -- the North Korean issue.
This means listening to our partners (especially Japan); playing the long game against Chinese demands for territorial control of the South China Sea; pushing back on Chinese cyber-forays; and maintaining a qualitative military edge over Beijing.
Third, in terms of talks, we need to think bigger than just the US and North Korea. Washington should look to expand the South Korean-North Korean dialog from a two-party conversation to a legitimate four party engagement: bringing both the US and China to the table.
Only by providing security guarantees to both sides of the Demilitarized Zone can we hope to move forward. And over the longer term, getting Japan into the conversation -- and also perhaps Russia, a legitimate Pacific power -- may make sense. Six-party talks can cover a vastly greater range of issues.
In terms of the May meeting between Trump and Kim, we should hope that it follows the fundamental dictate of the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.” While a summit may prove momentarily satisfying, it is essentially a sugar high.
A more lasting prescription would be to take a strategic approach, listen intently to our regional allies (especially Japan), incorporate China into the conversation now, and make sure Kim Jong-un knows he is not the centerpiece of the show. That’s what really matters in Asia today.
By James Stavridis
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. -- Ed.