Three questions to Marwan Bishara on US and North Korea

Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst comments on the mystery behind the US policy shift on North Korea.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA) [Reuters]
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA) [Reuters]

President Donald Trump has taken the Washington foreign-policy establishment by surprise in recent days by making a number of policy U-turns concerning the country’s friends and foes in the South Pacific region. 

As the world reacts to President Trump‘s indication that he would be willing to meet the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ”under the right circumstances”, Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, offers his view on the latest developments indicating a change in US Asia policy?.

Is there a real US policy change on North Korea?

Marwan Bishara: It’s hard to determine what’s real in the American world of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. But Trump’s recent overtures to the “infamous” Kim Jong-un, including his willingness and readiness, to meet the North Korean leader under the right circumstances, may signal a new diplomatic approach. 

Trump has told the Bloomberg network that in fact it would be his “honour” to meet the young Korean leader. This is not business as usual and more than an off-the-cuff utterance. His press secretary Sean Spicer has doubled down on the honour a few hours later.

There’s seems to be a pattern developing here. 

Trump has made similar statements praising the North Korean despot. Last week, he praised Kim for being able to lead his country forward despite big challenges from the generals and others, calling him a “pretty smart cookie”.

This also comes against the backdrop of another controversial move to invite Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House despite the latter’s hostility towards the US and its policy in the region. 

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Taken by surprise, Washington liberals and Democrats have already criticised Trump for embracing the US’ nemeses and alienating its friends, such as Japan and South Korea.  

The Washington Post and New York Times have indicated in their editorials that they see a pattern of the president embracing world despots . 

But this is only the latest smack of hypocrisy in Washington.

When President Obama toured the Middle East seeking the “wisdom” of its despots and expressed his willingness to talk to Tehran, and started a diplomatic dialogue with Iran over its nuclear programme, he was also accused of chumming up to his country’s foes at the expense of its friends.

Today, it’s the Democrats’ turn to throw the same accusations at the Republican president.


What’s behind the change?

Marwan Bishara: In one word, China.

Like his predecessors, Trump has come to realise that to get things done, he’ll need to work with, not against China.

His hostility towards China as a currency manipulator and unfair trader has taken the backseat to a new charm offensive directed at his new “friend”, Xi Jinping, a “good man” who’s trying to help out.

“He’s a good man,” Trump said. “He’s a very good man, and I got to know him very well”. He’s never met him before.

This included among others, Trump’s granddaughter singing to the Chinese first couple their favourite song in Mandarin. I’m sure this reminds Trump’s detractors of George W Bush looking in Putin’s eyes and finding him trustworthy.

In my view, President Xi was able to convince President Trump, during their Florida summit, about his willingness to make certain trade adjustments and corrections, and his readiness to help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.

In return, it’s likely that Trump will now help his new friend solidify his international stature before his re-election in the next Chinese Congress. It’s a win-win for both leaders.

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Beijing has always encouraged Washington to speak directly to Pyongyang, but now there is a new US leader willing to give this approach a chance. I can imagine Xi explaining to Trump why, like the American president, stroking Kim’s ego helps doing business with him.

Meanwhile, in order to maintain the positive momentum and refrain from antagonising China, Trump will no longer take calls from Taiwanese leaders.  And he’ll look favourably at US China trade relations.

What now, where do they go from here?

Marwan Bishara: It depends if all these moves are tactical or strategic, and whether they are part of a coherent grand strategy; or even a new Trump pivot to Asia.

The US is pursuing a dual-track approach that maintains military, economic and diplomatic pressures on North Korea, while at the same time leaving the door wide open for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear question.

Normalisation of North Korea’s relations with the West will also require aid and investments from North Korea’s neighbours.

Don’t expect a major breakthrough soon. Any progress will depend on the future of US-Chinese relations and the personal relationship between Trump and Xi, which seems to have got off to a good start.

Already in a nod towards Washington, China has abstained during a recent vote on a Syria resolution despite Russia’s veto.

Like his predecessors, Trump has understood that China is too big to alienate and too powerful to antagonise.

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And perhaps his generals have explained to him why superpower politics goes beyond quid pro quo transactional dealing and wheeling, and beyond beef trade and currency valuation.

That the US needs to approach China strategically and systematically with all the tools at its disposal, including the projection of power and the hedging of influence, leveraging trade, underwriting diplomacy and more.

President Obama spoke of why a prosperous China is good for America and the world, but went on to contain China’s influence through new economic and security alliances with its neighbours.

President Trump might, just might be pursuing a different pivot to Asia; a pivot that has China as its main subject not its object. 


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