Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump recently proposed changing America’s policy on dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, saying he would want to engage in direct talks with North Korea’s leader. He also said that he would pressure China to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, saying China “could solve that problem with one meeting or one phone call.”
Donald Trump has based part of the argument for his candidacy on the idea that he will solve America’s problems using his allegedly superior negotiating skills. Unfortunately, Trump’s comments on North Korea suggest he doesn’t particularly understand the basics of negotiation in international diplomacy or the fundamentals of power in East Asia.
Trump’s proposed strategy has several glaring flaws. The first is that holding direct talks between the United States and North Korea creates distance between the United States and its allies, South Korea and Japan. For well over a decade, North Korea has demanded concessions from the United States that would weaken American security guarantees to South Korea and Japan in exchange for any concession on the nuclear issue. If the U.S. and North Korea entered bilateral talks, South Korea and Japan would suddenly be left out of negotiations on an issue of paramount concern to their security and the United States would be in a position to trade away their safety in order to make a separate peace. This possibility is very worrisome to both South Korea and Japan and would undermine America’s alliances in Asia to its long-term detriment.
The danger of allowing North Korea to separate the United States from its allies on the nuclear issue would only be compounded if Trump followed through on his other campaign promises regarding South Korea and Japan. Trump has publicly said he believes South Korea does not contribute enough to its own defense, that the United States should rethink its mutual defense treaty with Japan, and that he wants to take a more confrontational approach toward both countries on trade. Trump has also said he thinks it would make sense to withdraw U.S. troops from both countries and instead let them develop their own nuclear deterrent, a zany idea that both South Korea and Japan are totally against. South Korea and Japan could be forgiven if they had misgivings that a President Trump would cut them out of the process in order to trade away their security for a sack of magic beans.
The second problem with Trump’s approach is his focus on having China pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons. This is a public declaration of U.S. impotence coupled with an endorsement of China as the real power broker in the region. If a U.S. president actually took this approach it would significantly raise China’s diplomatic prestige at America’s expense. The result will be that countries in Asia will increasingly look to Beijing for leadership and U.S. influence will wane.
The third problem with Trump’s program is that it is self-contradictory. China, by definition, would not be a party to bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea. If China really were the key it would make no sense to build a diplomatic strategy around talks that exclude China from the negotiating table. The current multiparty talks do bring China to the table and work to give other regional powers the chance to hold China’s feet to the fire on their continued support of the Kim regime.
The fourth problem with shifting to bilateral talks is that it has been tried in the past and has an extremely poor track record. The Obama administration has actually attempted bilateral talks, with uniformly negative results. Early on, the administration took a conciliatory tone toward North Korea. North Korea responded with a ballistic missile test in April of 2009 and a nuclear warhead test in May of 2009. The Obama administration then reverted to its predecessor’s policy of relying on multilateral engagement that kept Japan and South Korea closely involved.
The administration cautiously tried direct engagement again in 2011 and 2012, resulting in an agreement with North Korea that purported to restrain North Korea from engaging in more provocative behavior. Three weeks after the agreement was signed, North Korea violated it with an attempted satellite launch. After that, it was back to multilateral diplomacy again.
Donald Trump may tout his negotiating skills but if his proposals on North Korea are any indication he is a long way from understanding how to negotiate effectively with North Korea over its nuclear program. If adopted, his program would be unlikely to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program but it would undermine America’s relationships with its allies and concede diplomatic primacy in East Asia to Beijing.
Perhaps this is why Trump has become North Korea’s preferred candidate for president. North Korea’s state run media recently ran an editorial in one of the major government-run newspapers calling Trump “wise” and noting that his promise to stay out of any conflict between North and South Korea was “very fortunate for North Korea.” The editorial does not necessarily represent the view of North Korea’s top leaders but Pyongyang cannot have failed to notice that Trump appears to have a longstanding hostility to South Korea, which he considers to be free-riding on American protection. Now, Trump is proposing direct talks, which North Korea has spent many years asking for and South Korea has spent the same number of years worrying about. Trump appears not to understand the implications of any of this.
Successful diplomacy requires more than walking into a room with a foreign leader believing you can jawbone him into submission. It requires an actual strategy for shaping facts on the ground to your advantage and marshaling a coalition that can shift the balance of power in your favor. In this regard, the current U.S. policy is far preferable to that advocated by the self-proclaimed master dealmaker.
John Ford is a member Captain in the US Army JAG Corps. He has previously written in these pages on China and maritime disputes. The views expressed here are his own. You can follow him at @johndouglasford on twitter.