Asian Setback for Trump: North Korean ICBM Sets off Russian-Chinese Détente

Before and after his election, President Donald Trump often spoke of his ambition to forge a strategic bond with Russia as a high wall for keeping Moscow and Beijing well apart. If anyone shot that plan down it was North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He did so by launching a dozen short, medium- and intercontinental ballistic missiles in the seven months between Trump’s arrival in the White House in January and Tuesday, July 4. The North Korean dictator marked American Independence Day 2017 with the test-firing of an ICBM which, he said, “can reach anywhere n the world carrying a nuclear head.”
Western pundits are fond of describing Kim Jong Un as a brutal, young, out-of-control goon who treats ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons as toys to play with.
Nonetheless, his most ambitious missile test on Tuesday brought Chinese President Xi Jinping hurrying over to Moscow to sit down with President Vladimir Putin and produce a common statement: Together, they called on North Korea to declare “a moratorium on testing nuclear devices and ballistic missiles,” and on the US and South Korea to ‘refrain from large-scale joint maneuvers.”
Hinting broadly at the US, both spoke against the “non-regional powers’ military presence in Northeast Asia” and its “buildup under the pretext of countering North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.”
The two leaders said they were specifically opposed to US missile defense systems in the region (THAAD) as ‘seriously damaging strategic security interests of regional powers, including Russia and China.”
Although Kim had every reason to celebrate the Xi-Putin position, as an attempt to draw his regime into negotiations as a respected partner, he continued to play hard to get.
The next day, July 5, Pyongyang announced that the nation would “demonstrate its mettle to the US and never put its weapons up for negotiation” – meaning that everything was negotiable excepting only the disarming of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
This stance takes a leaf out of the playbook of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has resisted every international demand to put its missile program on the table.
The North Korean ruler is evidently testing his boundaries to see how far he can get away with pushing the Russians and Chinese leaders to confront Washington.
His success so far upends much of what was achieved by the rounds of Asian capitals made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis – as reflected in the remarks by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Washington is left without options for dealing with the extreme threat posed by North Korea other than the military.
Even military action against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs at this late date is fraught with uncertainty. Many of the launch-sites have been transferred to fortified underground facilities. And an American attack would moreover unite North Koreans around their leader. who would step up missile production in defiance.
While campaigning for election, President Trump threatened to impose a 45 percent tariff against Chinese goods on day one of his administration and declare China a currency manipulator.
As the North Korean ruler’s belligerency grew, the president reversed course and backed away from any hostile steps out of conviction that China held the key for bringing him to heel.
Trump and his advisers had apparently failed to appreciate Xi Jinping’s resolve to get the roughly 30,000 American troops out of the Korean Peninsula. At the very least, he aspires to rid the region of the advanced US THAAD anti-missile systems posted in the South.
It was always clear that to reach a bargain with Pyongyang, the Trump administration would have to talk to the Kim regime as a bilateral power, which might be persuaded at best to temporarily freeze its nuclear and missile programs, but not to renounce them. Beijing, for its part, will not be persuaded to help destabilize North Korea in any way because it presented the risk of a unified Korea allied with Washington rising in China’s back yard.
Only this week, after Xi-Putin’s joint statement from Moscow, did Washington grasp that the Chinese leader had no intention of living up to Trump’s expectations for a hand in curbing the dictator of Pyongyang.
On Wednesday, the US president criticized China for failing to do more to pressure North Korea on its nuclear program. In advance of his meeting with the Chinese president at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Trump went so far as to suggest that he was re-evaluating America’s trade relationship with Beijing in light of the mounting provocations from Pyongyang.
“Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter,” Mr. Trump said glumly in one of his tweets on Wednesday. “So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!”

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