In Asia, Trump Brings America to the Brink

Maryla Król
November 13, 2017

The threat of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is, of course, already dominatingDonald Trump’s presidential tour of Asia, which started this weekend. The trip – which includes stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines – is Trump’s first tour of the turbulent region and culminates with a major regional summit: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conclave, giving the commander in chief an unparalleled opportunity to promote a viable multilateral strategy to check Pyongyang.

Unfortunately, with the international spotlight fixed on Kim Jong-un, America’s media-obsessed president has little motivation to meaningfully engage with other key challenges in the region. As expected, so far he has only paid lip service to issues like trade that aren’t linked to North Korea. Yet if they’re not addressed, these regional grievances – a long list that includes the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – run the risk of undermining any U.S.-led negotiations with Pyongyang. The current state of these negotiations is the most important backdrop to the president’s Asia tour.

In the days before the tour, unfortunately, President Trump’s North Korea strategyboiled down to little more than bombastic taunts. Whether he’s denouncing Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man” or threatening to use “fire and fury” to “destroy” North Korea, President Trump’s tweets are a product of his bellicose and incoherent understanding of international relations. Although he dialed back his rhetoric slightly during his latest press conference with his South Korean counterpart, calling for Pyongyang to come to the negotiations table, such restraint remains the exception, not the rule.

If Trump ever gets serious about North Korea, his first priority must be further de-escalating the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang. After weeks of insisting total denuclearization, a demand that North Korea will never meet, Trump has now pushed the U.S. into a corner. This means that eventually, either America will have to back down, or Trump will follow through on his threats and launch a military strike.

To push America back from the point of no return, Trump needs to do three things: define his short and long-term objectives in the Korean Peninsula; increase conciliatory efforts; and foster deeper cooperation among key U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific. How the president approaches the North Korea issue during the Asia tour will be a valuable litmus test for America’s partners.

Unfortunately, even from the moment he became president, Trump wasted no time escalating tensions with North Korea. Trump’s provocations reached their zenith in his address to the UN General Assembly, where he threatened to annihilate the country. The counterproductive remarks have barely stopped since. When North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan, Trump responded by decrying bilateral mediation, and even used Twitter to undercut negotiations between his own Secretary of State and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Even if such saber rattling is part of a broader ‘madman’ strategy, it’s clear that Trump remains highly reluctant to negotiate with Kim Jong-un. In fact, the president’s history of scorn for dialogue, allusions to military action, and belittlement of North Korea’s leader suggests that Trump is fatalistic about the idea of reaching a peaceful solution in the Korean Peninsula. To make matters worse, it has now become clear that Trump fails to grasp the human cost and geopolitical ramifications of launching a military strike on North Korea, continuing to discuss a military intervention as if it is feasible. It is not. Rather than rely on a string of diplomatic and military misconceptions, Trump should cultivate long-term military cooperation and political unity among U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific.

Yet before Trump can even consider creating a unified front against Pyongyang, he must first navigate the minefield of tensions underpinning interstate relations in East and Southeast Asia. Despite progress in intelligence sharing, persistent bickering among key U.S. allies is already throwing a wrench into plans to create a regional North Korea strategy.

For instance, deeper cooperation between two of America’s most important bilateral allies, South Korea and Japan, has been undermined by a diplomatic rift that traces back to World War II. Eager to strengthen his support base, South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in has reopened old wounds, criticizing Japan’s “insufficient apology” for the treatment of South Korean “comfort women” and threatening to abandon a 2015 settlement agreement. However, Moon’s announcement triggered a hostile response from neighboring Vietnam, with Hanoi accusing South Korean troops of raping thousands of Vietnamese women – whose children make up theexiled ‘Lai Dai Han’ mixed-race community – during the Vietnam War. Since Seoul sided with the US, and despite widespread evidence pointing to a systemic culture of rape among South Korean troops, these crimes were never acknowledged.

Unfortunately, so far, Trump has done little to bridge these complex divides during the first days of tour. In Japan, he refused to rule out military action against Pyongyang and declared that President Abe would shoot down any more missiles shot from the rogue state. And while Trump had warm words for President Moon during his South Korea stopover, his past accusations that Seoul is trying to “appease” the North have done little to smooth feathers in the volatile region.

As tensions boil over across Asia, Trump – whether he knows it or not – is walking into a disaster of his own making. In fact, his castigation of North Korea has already convinced top officials from the rogue state that the U.S. is at war. Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho’s recent statement, “Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to…shoot down [their] strategic bombers”, should be a dire warning.

Words matter when you are the President of the United States.

Trump’s Asia tour is the last opportunity to shore up America’s relations with uneasy allies and develop a regional North Korea strategy. If Trump can’t extricate himself from the escalating war of words with Kim Jong-un, “the ultimate dealmaker” might lose his only chance of preventing another pointless, grinding war in the Pacific.