HONG KONG—Loose lips sink ships, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s lips are about as loose as they get. But what might lie behind his gaffes? And what might lie ahead of them? In the looming showdown with North Korea, the answers are potentially apocalyptic.
For the moment we can only guess what Trump told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week about his North Korea strategy. “It's a big problem. It's a world problem and it will be solved at some point,” Trump declared to the press at his meeting with Abe before the G7 summit in Italy. “It will be solved, you can bet on that.”
But how does one “solve” a problem like North Korea?
Soon there will be three U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups cruising near the peninsula. But on Monday, Kim Jong Un staged another successful missile test—just the kind of operation the Trump administration has vowed to stop.
“As we agreed at the recent G7, the issue of North Korea is a top priority for the international community,” Abe told reporters in brief televised remarks on Monday after the latest missile test. “Working with the United States, we will take specific action to deter North Korea.”
There are clues to Trump’s thinking, and it keeps turning toward Beijing. His tweeted reaction to the latest provocation by Pyongyang: “North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile...but China is trying hard!”
But “trying hard” may not be enough.
We now know that during an April 29 phone call between Trump and his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, amid praise for extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers and addicts—“an unbelievable job on the drug problem”—Trump called North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a “madman with nuclear weapons.” And Trump asked Duterte’s opinion about whether Kim is “stable or not stable.” (Some would see irony in this, given the two people who were talking.)
The American president also let slip that the United States had “a lot of firepower over there,” and boasted, as he is wont to do, with some highly classified specifics: he told Duterte two nuclear submarines had been dispatched by the Pentagon to the region.
So, three carriers, two nuclear submarines . . .
Trump sounded amazed at the potential destructive power he commands. “I’ve never seen anything like they [the subs] are, but we don’t have to use this, but he could be crazy, so we will see what happens.”
Actually, we have a pretty good idea what would happen if full scale warfare breaks out. Diplomats talk about “the tyranny of proximity,” and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis sketched out the scenario Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation: It would be “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes,” he said. "The North Korean regime has hundreds of artillery cannons and rocket launchers within range of one of the most densely populated cities on Earth, which is the capital of South Korea. And in the event of war, they would bring danger to China and to Russia as well.”
Trump told Duterte, “We can’t let a madman with nuclear weapons let on the loose like that. We have a lot of firepower, more than he has, times 20, but we don’t want to use it.”
Mercurial as ever, Trump recently told Bloomberg News that he would be “honored” to meet Kim, echoing a notion that he shared on CBS’s Face the Nation regarding his opinion of the North Korean dictator’s savage grip on his office: “A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away . . . And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.”
Duterte, in his chat with Trump, didn’t seem to share that view. “He is not stable, Mr. President, as he keeps on smiling when he explodes a rocket,” the Philippine strongman said. “But it seems from his face he is laughing always and there’s a dangerous toy in his hands which could create so much agony and suffering for all mankind.”
The Duterte phone call transcript was leaked from the Philippines, and The Intercept and The Washington Post both published it online in full last week. In it, there was a lot of talk about China, East Asia’s most dominant power broker and one of North Korea’s few backers (at least, until recently).
What now are Pyongyang’s weekly launches of short- or medium-range ballistic missiles, a prelude to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles that might reach as far as Seattle, have been described as a defiant show of power toward South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, but they are equally aimed at China and even the United States, which has 80,000 troops stationed in South Korea and Japan.
China, as Duterte told Trump, “is the last country he should rebuke.”
So Kim Jong Un has proven himself to be an unreasonable dictator, and Beijing is losing patience. For the second month in a row, Chinese imports of North Korean coal have been zero. The airport in Dandong, a northeastern Chinese city, confirmed that flights operated by Air Koryo, which transports passengers between China and North Korea, have been suspended. Chinese tourism companies have been eliminating tours to the hermit kingdom; half-day tours of Pyongyang, which is visa-free for some Chinese travelers, are becoming skeletal. Cross-border commerce, which provides consumer goods to the general population in North Korea, has been in a rut.
Even though relations between China and South Korea have been rough because of Seoul’s adoption of the American THAAD missile defense system, officials of the two nations have been meeting to repair ties.
During one of the sessions, Chinese state councilor Yang Jiechi, who is a senior policy advisor to the Chinese President Xi Jinping, said that the two nations must work together to guard against North Korean threats. A special envoy, Lee Hae-chan, has been dispatched by the new South Korean president to keep communication channels with Beijing open and smooth.
Not only has the Chinese Communist Party been withholding meaningful financial support for Pyongyang’s elite, it has slowly but surely made suggestions about how the Chinese state apparatus would react to armed conflict in the Korean Peninsula. In late April, an op-ed circulated in Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times had a tidy note buried near its end: “If America performs surgical strikes in North Korea, China will only intervene diplomatically, but not militarily.” (The op-ed, which was written in Chinese, has been taken offline.) Its author, whose name was not in the byline, even suggested that somebody should cut off most, but not all, of North Korea’s energy supply to emaciate the regime.
Trump must walk a tightrope. To counter China’s aggressive territorial grabs in East and Southeast Asia means provoking the CCP—exactly the sort of provocation sparked by the presence of two nuclear submarines and overt freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. But containing North Korea means that two superpowers need to get along in the same sandbox and work in concert.
During Trump’s visit to Vatican City, Pope Francis asked the American president to be a “peacemaker,” gifting him a small sculpture of an olive tree that, as the pope said, symbolizes peace. But when it comes to North Korea, American action—diplomatic, military, or any other form—may be insufficient on its own, no matter the intention.
Last month, when discussing the possibility of reining in North Korea, Duterte offered this sobering truism to Trump during their phone conversation: “At the end of the day, the last card, the ace, has to be with China. It’s only China. [Kim Jong Un] is playing with his bombs, his toys, and from the looks of it his mind is not working well and he might just go crazy one moment. China should make a last ditch effort to tell him to lay off. China will play a very important role there.”