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22.01.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Why has the US ‘Changed Its Mind’ on North Korea?

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Were we to believe the official, the Trumpian, narrative on the US’ change of attitude towards North Korea and how the US has embraced North-South talks, we would end up believing that the US president Trump was previously “too tough” on North Korea and that he has only now decided to show some “flexibility.” While that sounds like highly gracious and generous, this is sadly not the reality, and therefore, hard to believe as well.  This is how Trump explained his dramatic transformation in a recent interview given to the Wall Street Journal. He said, “You’ll see that a lot with me… and then all of a sudden I’m somebody’s my best friend… I’m a very flexible person.” But the Trumpian self-declared “flexibility” is something that has been imposed upon him by the factors external to his idiosyncratic world of events, where things aren’t that “fantastic” as he might have thought when he was trying to destroy North Korea through his bombastic tweets only a few days ago before this interview.

It is not Trump’s “flexibility” that has made South Korea embrace North Korea all of a sudden; it is the massively changed ground realities that have forced both South Korea and the US to adopt a different strand of policy to handle the nuclear issue. And the change in ground realities has been perfectly captured by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which he explained at a meeting with top Russian editors last Thursday at the Kremlin, saying that:

“I think that Kim Jong Un has obviously won this round. He has achieved his strategic goal. He has a nuclear warhead, and now he also has a missile with a global range of up to 13,000 kilometres, which can reach almost any part of the globe, at least in the territory of his potential adversary.”

In simple words, what Putin seems to mean to say was that the fact that North Korea can hit the US directly, Kim has achieved in taking the threat level to ‘mutual assured destruction’, forcing Trump to become “flexible.”

Interestingly enough, the situation briefings the US president has recently received from his officials have also focused greatly on the considerably increased threat level and the fact that North Korea could no longer be made to give in to the US demands.

According to media reports, from the US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have all argued strongly against a war with North Korea and pressed for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis. All of them are also reported to have briefed Trump on the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of the war, countering the more hawkish view of H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security advisor, whose staff has been the main source of leaks about the US staging a “bloody nose” attack on North Korea.

Again, it is only after these strong-worded briefings that Trump was forced to scale down his bombastic tweets and his hawkish rhetoric against North Korea and postpone, until April, the annual joint US-South Korean military exercises—something that was to underscore, in the prevailing circumstances, the US’ commitment to Seoul’s security. But within this postponement is also hidden the growing tension between Seoul & Washington.

Not all good between Seoul & Washington

Notwithstanding the way North Korea has enhanced the threat level to de-escalate the situation; it still does not directly explain why South Korea has entered into a détente with North. Conventional wisdom suggests that South Korea, following North’s deployment of nuclear missiles, should have embraced the US more tightly, but the contrary has happened. It is the enemy that Seoul has embraced. Why? The only significant reason that comes to mind is the widening gap between Seoul and Washington itself. There are serious concerns in Washington about the widening gap between both countries in the wake of emphasis coming from the Trump administration with regard to scrapping the KORUS free trade agreement. Coupled with this is the dispute lingering on with regard to the new round of negotiations on defence co-operation and Trump’s insistence on new defence burden-sharing arrangement.

In this context, South Korea’s move toward embracing North Korea becomes understandable as more of a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the US, putting the latter in difficult situation whereby the US would have become, if it had opposed the talks, the ‘enemy of the Korean people.’ Trump’s “flexibility”, therefore, has its roots not in his person but in the changing geo-political dimensions of the Korean peninsula.

These dynamics are changing not just because two Koreas are cozying up to each other but because other regional powers, particularly Russia, are inserting themselves in the peninsula in a way that would considerably help diminish the tension. Russia is positioning itself to act—if the talks between the two Koreas gain traction – by extending the Trans-Siberian railway line via North Korea to South Korea and also by building oil and gas pipelines connecting Siberia and the Russian Far East with Korean markets. The US, therefore, has every reason to be weary of these developments and change its stance on the issue and embrace Seoul’s lead.

But Trump’s attempt at hiding these developments under his idiosyncratic wisdom could not have come as a surprise because that’s exactly how the new president has been found to be fond of acting. But regardless of his methods, what we today have on the ground in the Korean peninsula is little to no reason of war between North Korea and the US or between the two Koreas. The détente is likely to go on for some time, and with Russia and China willing to extend it, the US is left with no option but to become a bit “flexible.”

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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