The Pacific is the setting of a worrying standoff. On one side, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a militarist with a tendency for paranoia who readily considers himself a demigod, continues his quest for a functioning nuclear weapon; on the other, Donald Trump, American president, incessant tweeter and slight insomniac who is unpredictable and, on reaching 100 days in office, has vowed to “solve the [North Korean] problem ...” These two were not built to understand each other. This is a dangerous situation.
During the Cold War, Americans and Russians learned to talk. In Washington and Moscow, they had a fairly accurate idea of what their enemy was thinking. This shared understanding of what one believed to be the other’s nuclear deterrent allowed for a more controlled management of the megatons stockpiled by the United States and the Soviet Union. This, in turn, led to a series of historic agreements on the monitoring and partial nuclear disarmament of the two great powers of the age.
There is none of that in this three-way game, with the dark blue waves of the Pacific as the playing field. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un – grandson of the founder of the ruthless dictatorship in power in Pyongyang – continues to increase the number of missile strikes and attempted nuclear tests. He threatens South Korea and Japan, though not the Pacific Coast of the United States yet – but he’s working on it.
In the United States, the Republican Trump issues warning after warning for the benefit of the young Kim (who is believed to be 33 years old).The White House says there is no question of leaving things as they are. “We have to solve it”* and “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” repeats Trump. In Beijing, Kim Jong Un is also deeply unpopular, but the Chinese leaders continue to support this burdensome ally economically.
What is each side striving for? By equipping himself with nuclear weapons, Kim wants to ensure the survival of his regime. His strategy: let everyone believe he is prepared to deploy a nuclear weapon first if anyone tries to remove him from power. In Washington, Trump understands that the North Korean question plays an integral part in U.S.-Chinese relations: a good economic and strategic relationship with America presupposes that China will persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program.
Beijing favors a status quo of sorts. Some say the collapse of North Korea would lead to a reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the aegis of South Korea, a strategic ally of the United States. American forces stationed in South Korea today would find themselves back on China’s doorstep. This would be unacceptable. Beijing continues to make it clear that if it is desired that the nations be unified at any cost, then it has another demand. It wants the United States to stop opposing its domination in the South China Sea.
The American president has shown that he is prepared to use a certain amount of force, in Syria as in Afghanistan. The danger is that Kim Jong Un will misinterpret an early morning tweet from Trump concerning him. This is a plausible risk. The most probable turn of events is the pursuit of sanctions, which has never resulted in Kim backing down. The most desirable result would be real, strategic U.S.-Chinese dialogue. This would necessarily involve the two Koreas as well. Its intention would be to fill the security vacuum in which the Pacific region finds itself – as presently one of the most volatile places on earth.
*Editor's note: Donald Trump's quote, “We have to solve it” is paraphrased and not a direct quote.