Evoking Kissinger on China and North Korea
For twenty years, Henry Kissinger has had the ear of Chinese leaders regarding the need to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.
But also over that period, Chinese leaders have had Kissinger’s ear on the complexity of the problem. Their whispering has consistently proved more persuasive.
Donald Trump, new to the issue, intends to take a less nuanced approach with China, but the divergence and convergence on four key issues suggest an effective policy approach for the Trump administration.
Kissinger and Trump have both described the North Korean danger in apocalyptic terms.
Kissinger (2011): The spread of these weapons into hands not restrained by the historical and political considerations of the major states augurs a world of devastation and human loss without precedent even in our age of genocidal killings.
Trump (2016): The power of weaponry today is beyond anything ever thought of, or even, you know, it’s unthinkable, the power. It’s a very scary nuclear world. The biggest problem to me in the world is nuclear proliferation.
You have this madman over there who probably would use a nuclear weapon. He's sick enough to use it. This guy doesn't play games. And we can't play games with him.
Both also agree on China’s pivotal role in the North Korea problem--but disagree on whether China is doing all it can to solve it.
Kissinger (2005): North Korea] is often presented as an example of China's failure to fulfill all its possibilities. But anyone familiar with Chinese conduct over the past decade knows that China has come a long way.
China’s patience in dealing with the problem is grating on some U.S. policymakers [but] the North Korean problem is more complex for China than for the United States.
Kissinger (2009): Too much of the commentary on the current crisis has concerned the deus ex machina of Chinese pressure on North Korea and complaints that Beijing has not implemented its full arsenal of possibilities. But China has reason to fear chaos along its borders.
[I]t is more sensitive than its partners to the danger of destabilizing the political structure of North Korea. Great respect must be paid to Chinese views.
Kissinger (2011): For the first ten years of North Korea’s nuclear program, China took the position that it was a matter for the United States and North Korea to settle between themselves.
Over the two decades, Kissinger offered no less than six different, sometimes inconsistent, rationales for China’s indulgence of North Korean behavior. Trump is having none of it.
Trump (2016): China has … total control, absolute control, over North Korea. They don’t say it but they do. And China should solve that problem. And if they don't solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.
We are holding China up. They're taking so much money. They're draining our country, and they're toying with us with North Korea. China should do it. They say they can't, they 'don't have that power.' They're toying with our politicians.
We’d better get involved . . . China should make that problem disappear. I would get China to make that guy disappear in one form or another very quickly.
Both have mentioned nuclear arming of other states in the region in ways that could induce greater Chinese pressure on Pyongyang.
Kissinger (2011): If North Korea were to be accepted as a nuclear power, it is highly likely that Japan and South Korea and possibly other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, would ultimately also join the nuclear club, altering the strategic landscape of Asia. China’s leaders oppose such an outcome.
Trump (2016): Unfortunately, we have a nuclear world now. Would I rather have North Korea have [nuclear weapons] with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that's the case. In other words, where Japan is defending itself against North Korea, which is a real problem.
It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time. They're going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.
While worldwide nuclear disarmament is a tall order challenge for Global Zero (which Kissinger supports), denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the immediate challenge for the incoming Trump administration.
Melding the Kissinger and Trump thinking might motivate Beijing and Pyongyang to reconsider the wisdom of the path they are on together. Trump’s idea certainly caught the attention of a leading North Korean foreign policy expert-- Ri Jong Ryul, deputy-director general of the Institute of International Studies in Pyongyang.
Donald Trump's remarks are totally absurd and illogical. The U.S. tells us to give up our nuclear program, is preparing a nuclear attack against us, and on the other hand would tell its allies to have nuclear weapons. Isn't this (a) double standard?
Might the elements of a deal be in the making? Using Chinese pressure, could a North Korean freeze, followed by staged denuclearization, be exchanged for non-nuclear guarantees from Japan and South Korea? Or did Ri immediately throw cold water on that possibility?
We're not really interested in the U.S. election. We don't care who becomes the next U.S. president. Whether Republicans or Democrats take power, it has nothing to do with us. American politicians have always had a hostile policy against [North] Korea.
Kissinger's earlier view and Trump’s present mindset may also converge on a last resort fallback position if China continues its refusal to crack down on North Korea.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his longstanding apologetics for China’s failure to seriously press North Korea, Kissinger actually contemplated direct U.S. military action to address the growing problem. In a Washington D.C. radio interview in 1994, Kissinger said he once believed the United States should unilaterally “knock out the nuclear capability of North Korea, if necessary, even by aerial strikes.” (Former Defense Secretary William Perry also favored this idea.)
However, Kissinger came to believe it would be “too dangerous for us to do this alone given the general mentality that now exists in Washington and unwillingness to support it.” Instead, he said we should tell China “we are willing to go as far as you are willing to go in doing away with the nuclear capability ... including a blockade and total economic isolation.”
Under a Trump administration, Washington’s mentality may well be more receptive to some form of dramatic action--either by China and the U.S. acting in concert, possibly with Japan and South Korea as well—or, if necessary, by America going it alone, per Kissinger and Perry.
Kissinger’s own assessment of the president-elect, whose candidacy he originally saw as “a transitory phenomenon,” is interesting, and optimistic. He told Face the Nation that as “a new president who is asking a lot of unfamiliar questions,” he presents “an extraordinary opportunity.”
[H]e operates by a kind of instinct that is a different form of analysis as my more academic one . . . [H]e’s raised a number of issues that I think are important, very important and, if they’re addressed properly, could lead to -- could create results.
Overall, Trump’s harsh critique of China’s role in creating the North Korean threat is on the mark. He may lack the experts’ knowledge about the China-North Korea relationship, but he knows the one thing that matters most: China sustains the North Korean regime and intentionally enables its nuclear and missile programs.
Merging Kissingerian insights with Trumpian instincts may produce a strategy that will finally motivate China to resolve, or at least significantly mitigate, the North Korea nuclear crisis. If so, he could vindicate Kissinger’s prognosis: “[H]e has the possibility of going down in history as a very considerable president.”