Good news from Korea

First published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
Written by Quentin Langley

Donald Trump is claiming a major foreign policy victory. Early in an administration presidents often claim credit for things that were actually the achievements of their predecessors, and continue to blame their predecessors for problems. Barack Obama seemed to be a particularly brazen offender in the latter category, but this is something that probably requires rigorous research, rather than a vague impression.

But does Trump have a reasonable case for claiming that he has secured cooperation from China in action on North Korea? Not yet, but possibly.

His critics claim China is merely promising to follow through on things it already promised last year. But if China promised these things before, and didn’t actually do them, then following through it marks a change of policy. And Donald Trump gets to say that he secured the change.

Of course, it is possible that China was waiting on the result of the presidential election before following through for any number of reasons. Any president would want to claim this credit, and by waiting a few months China got to deliver the new president a “victory”. That’s a worthwhile gift to any president, and perhaps the Chinese would have done the same with President Hillary Clinton or even Gary Johnson. It plainly makes sense to earn credit with the new president rather than with the old one.

But, the fact remains, China does seem to be moving in the direction of pressing North Korea. And this really, really, matters. North Korea has nuclear weapons. An attack on South Korea would be devastating. Even without a prolonged war, an attack would trigger global recession. The South Korean capital, Seoul, borders on North Korea, and it is one of the largest and most productive cities on the planet. Its population is larger – and almost as rich – as New York and London combined.

China does not want to see a collapse in North Korea, but would arguably be hurt even more by a depression in the South, let alone war. And if someone is to bring North Korea into line China needs it to be China. Anything else would be a loss of face.

Many of the top military brass in North Korea trained in China. China can possibly press its friends there to organize a coup, and remove Kim Jong Un from power. Or it can summon Kim to China and lay down some rules. Sanctions may be just the first step.

North Korea has also been rather leaky. Its missile technology has found its way to unsavory characters in the Middle East. Closing off that pathway would be another major diplomatic coup for the Trump administration.

True, none of this has happened yet, and it may not. Promises remain just promises. And these are promises which were previously made to the Obama administration. But good news from the Korean peninsula is good news for the world.

In exchange, Trump seems to have backed down on his campaign promise to declare China a “currency manipulator”. This is good news too. Trump’s trade policies threatened to trigger recession. The sooner he drops them the better.

Quentin Langley lives in New York and London and teaches at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it

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