The Washington Post has announced that Secretary of State designate Pompeo held secret meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un in Pyongyang during Easter.
Does this mean that President Trump has developed a strategy for North Korea, and East Asia, as a whole?
Does this make Pompeo Kissinger to Trump´s Nixon? Or does Trump just see this as a new chapter of the Art of the Deal?
What happens when Trump finds there is no deal to make?
Analysts were surprised by the Washington Post´s revelation that CIA Director and Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang over Easter for meetings with North Korean leader Kin Jung-un. The visit grants greater seriousness to the forthcoming meeting between Trump and Kim, apparently scheduled for June. The closest parallel in recent US diplomatic history was Henry Kissinger´s secret visit to Beijing to prepare for Richard Nixon´s subsequent visit to China and famous meeting with Mao Zedong. Given the role of that visit in China´s “opening to the west”, its ultimate consequence can be seen as Xi Jinping. The embroilment of Nixon in the Watergate scandal, and his subsequent resignation to avoid impeachment, seem to draw another parallel with a President Trump embattled by the investigations into his administration´s links with Russia. Do Republican presidents threatened by special prosecutors seek to escape domestic woes by visits to East Asian tyrants?
There are, of course, important differences between Presidents Nixon and Trump. Nixon´s visit to China pre-dated the Watergate scandal. Nixon was a professional politician, whereas Trump is a businessman who has turned to politics late in life. Most important, Nixon saw his visit to China as part of a broader strategy for dealing with the Cold War. Although many would give Kissinger credit for the strategic thinking, partly because of Watergate and partly because Kissinger is still alive, Nixon had floated the idea of dialogue with China in a 1967 Foreign Affairs article. The aim was to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to play Beijing off against Moscow – the so-called triangulation strategy. Improving relations with China would allow Nixon to advance détente with a Soviet leadership fearing isolation (the other objective of Nixon´s visit, to get the Chinese to pressure the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, fared less well).
It seems unlikely that Trump is thinking in such strategic terms. His approach to international relations is transactional. He believes he can do deals with other leaders that will promote US interests. Central to this transactional approach is Trumps confidence in his deal-making abilities and the personal touch. Personal relations between strong man leaders “trumps” patient diplomacy. Trump believes he can cut a deal with Kim Jung-un that will solve the problem of North Korea´s nuclear weapons programme. There are significant dangers in this approach. For Kim securing a one-on-one meeting with a US President, something neither his father or grandfather achieved, is in itself a major success. But when he talks about de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsular, he means the withdrawal of US forces. Given the preponderance of North Korean conventional forces, it is difficult to see how the US could ever sign up to this. But it is equally difficult to see Kim giving up his nuclear insurance policy as long as US forces remain in South Korea. How will Trump react to discovering there is no deal to be made? Previous experience suggests with petulance and a storm of angry and provocative tweets. Unless the personal chemistry between two narcissistic juveniles works wonders, a face to face meeting between Trump and Kim could make the situation even more dangerous.
There is no evidence that Trump has taken account of, or even thought about, the wider geopolitical implications of his meeting with Kim. The Chinese will be keen to ensure that Kim protects China´s core interests in the Korean peninsular, primarily that Korea remains divided and the Americans a long way away from the river Yalu. It would be interesting to know the precise timing of the meeting between Kim and Pompeo, and whether it was before or after Kim´s visit to Beijing. The Japanese will be kin to ensure continued US support, against both North Korea and China. The Russians too have been sniffing around in Pyongyang (Kim´s grandfather was, after all, a protégé of Stalin and not Mao Zedong). Their intentions are not at all clear: offering themselves to Kim as an alternative backer to China; re-asserting an Asian role; tweaking the Americans; or even tweaking the Chinese. But they will be a factor in Kim´s assessment of where his interests lie. As for the poor South Koreans, who are well aware of their likely casualties in the event of conflict with the North, conventional or nuclear, and who seem to be the real architects of the Trump-Kim meeting, they want only to reduce the tensions.
Nor is there any evidence that Trump has considered what message a summit with Kim sends outside the Far East. But the Iranians will be listening and learning the lesson. If you want a one-on-one meeting with the US President, get nuclear weapons, and fast. If, as seems likely with Bolton now to egg him on, Trump refuses to certify the nuclear deal with Iran, we should expect the Iranians to resume their nuclear weapons programme, with further destabilisation of the Middle East.
Pompeo´s visit to Pyongyang does increase the likelihood that the meeting between Trump and Kim Jung-un will take place. But Pompeo is no Kissinger, and Trump is no Nixon (nor is Kim a Mao Zedong). There is no broader strategy for East Asia, nor any understanding of how this impacts elsewhere in the world. Trump will approach the talks like the hustler he is seeking to cut a deal. If, as likely, he fails, the situation could be even more dangerous than before the meeting.