In late March, addressing a group of Chinese business leaders at the Bank of China in New York, I related my experience carrying messages between South Korea and China in 1990 at the request of then-South Korean Prime Minister Kang Young-hoon. The two countries lacked diplomatic relations yet were eager for trade in goods and technology against a backdrop of centuries of close cultural relations.
Given the Chinese view that their relations with their fellow communists in North Korea were as close as “lips and teeth,” I was skeptical that formal diplomatic relations between the two countries would be established anytime soon. Nevertheless, much to my surprise and that of most foreign policy analysts, the two nations formally established diplomatic relations in 1992. In puzzling the reasons, a knowledgeable South Korean observed, with a chuckle, that North Korea and China were “married” while South Korea and China were “lovers.”
Now twenty-five years later that uncomfortable arrangement is undergoing a radical shift. Over the past five years, China’s President Xi has reversed Deng Xiaoping’s policy of a humble, inward-focused China, determined to develop a strong economy without yielding the absolute political power of the Communist Party. Xi has strengthened his grip on both the Communist Party and the government and has turned his focus outward. As the leader of the world’s most populous nation and the world’s second largest economy, Xi is moving rapidly and aggressively to claim for China a leading role on the world stage and the leading role in East Asia. In doing so, Xi hopes to diminish America’s power and influence in the Pacific, a role the United States has played since the close of World War II.
In this context, it is in China’s interest for Xi to push North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un to reduce decades-old tensions on the Korean peninsula. China’s United Nations approval of strong economic sanctions on North Korea was predictable, with its seeming reluctance only a bow to its stale “marriage.” And Kim Jong-Un’s recent about-face on North Korea’s drive to become a major nuclear power would not have occurred without China tacitly backing President Trump’s forceful efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.
As for North Korea, a calculating Kim Jong-Un has to be considering the consequences of a surgical strike on his nuclear and missile capabilities by a “fire and fury” Trump. His counter threat is to fire howitzers and missiles long zeroed in on heavily populated South Korean targets less than 50 miles from the border. But, without China’s intervention, North Korea would quickly lose the subsequent war. North Korea’s subsistence economy cannot support an effective modern army, especially one led by political officers who are neither strong nor effective military leaders.
The national security interests of both China and the United States, as well as the Koreas, are well-served by ending the uneasy truce that has made the 38th parallel a potential great power flashpoint since 1953. A denuclearized North Korea, coupled with the signing of a permanent peace between North and South Korea, will advance the cause of peace in East Asia and the world. Additionally, it would remove the rationale for maintaining the 35,000 American troops currently stationed in South Korea and open the way for North Korea to follow China’s path of economic development and to begin to normalize its relations with its neighbors and the world.
President Trump has made it clear that he will rebuild America’s military and that he will use it to protect our vital national interests. This renewed American resolve, along with the president’s willingness to deal with the world’s despots to eliminate clear and present national security threats, has made this Korean peninsula denouement possible. The president is on the cusp of achieving what his three immediate predecessors could not achieve.
The strategic bases for an historic deal on the Korean peninsula are set, and we have a president elected in part because he knows how to make a deal. While he aggressively is pursuing tough engagements with China on trade, intellectual property, and other matters on which he campaigned, he has developed and maintained a cordial relationship with President Xi. After initial rough verbal exchanges with Kim Jong-Un, he has now given Kim Jong-Un the long-sought recognition of agreeing to meet.
Yes, the devil will be in the details of security assurances, troop withdrawals, timetables, verification, and other matters which will cause established interests on all sides to cry foul, but the strategic imperatives are there and Donald J. Trump’s instincts will be to seize the moment and make an historic deal.
Ed Cox is Chairman of the New York Republican Party and the son-in-law of Richard Nixon.
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