A couple of years ago I started seeing more and more signals vis-a-vis North/South Korean relations. I wrote at the time it was likely that something would happen relatively soon, and that the first steps of reunification would occur within 5-10 years, and more likely within 5.
All went quiet for a while but things recently heated up – as we suggested they might. For Trump North Korea might be ‘low-hanging fruit’ if he wants to achieve some milestones in his first term on foreign policy. Before meeting Xi Jin Ping last week he created an atmosphere of a mini crisis about North Korea. And we still don’t know what really happened to the former Crown Prince – a warning to Kim perhaps? We even heard that the Navy Seal team that took out Osama Bin Laden had been dispatched to the Korean Peninsula soon after. Then there were the optics of the first meeting Trump-Xi, which is what i was looking at quite closely.
Ian Bremmer at Eurasia noted:
“Presidential historians will remind you that when Mikhail Gorbachev first met Ronald Reagan on a cold Geneva morning in 1985, Gorbachev was wearing a heavy top coat and scarf while Reagan, 20 years his elder, emerged to greet him with no coat at all. That meeting produced little more than a first public impression favorable to the US president, but Soviet officials griped about it for years. Their man was on the backfoot before he’d even heard the sound of Reagan’s voice.
…In November 2009, Obama’s first visit with China’s Hu Jintao took place in Beijing as part of a multi-country Asian tour. Knowing that recovery from the worst financial crisis in 80 years left Obama with much less negotiating leverage with his country’s largest creditor, Chinese officials detained dissidents in advance of Obama’s visit and cancelled the wide broadcast of a town hall-style meeting that Obama hoped would give him a direct channel to Chinese youth. A photograph of Obama staring down at his notes during a stern lecture on trade policy from President Hu left a less-than-favorable impression with US media.
China’s President Xi Jinping didn’t offer Trump much more than Hu gave Obama, but the optics were strikingly different. First, it took place at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida Xanadu, in opulent surroundings that spotlight Trump’s personal wealth. Trump’s plane reportedly landed in Florida an hour after Xi’s, making him late to his own party, a bit of swagger worthy of Vladimir Putin. If that didn’t get Xi’s attention, maybe he was more impressed by Trump’s decision to order a barrage of Tomahawk missiles into Syria during the party. Trump followed the meeting with a tweet that signaled confident skepticism on US-China trade ties, and then he sent an aircraft carrier and several warships cruising ominously toward North Korea.”
For many the attack on Syria last week represented a huge u-turn in Trump’s rhetoric of being against intervention and regime change. He was even against doing something against Assad the last time the Syrian government was alleged to have used chemical weapons.
Many of Trump’s base was aghast.
Governments rarely tell us what they are really doing in foreign policy. I am sure there are very complex reasons why Trump ordered the strike last week. Part if it might be to stop the noise about his Russia connections. But I am convinced part of it was to send a message to both China that there is a new sheriff in town but also to remind both China and North Korea that he will be decisive on North Korea.
I have been in Seoul many times when CNN has been in the background of my hotel room airing talking heads discussing rising tensions and possible nuclear war. I always ignore it. But this time, as I flew in to Seoul a few weeks ago, I wrote that I did have a slight uneasy feeling that the temperature was about to rise a lot.[ I even had a dream 2 months ago of a missile passing by my ear!! Whether or not we can have premonitions is open to debate. But i think its at least fairly obvious that at night our brains can sort through and make sense of all the data we have gathered during the day.]
China’s approach seems to have gradually changed in the last year or two, with more rhetoric that they have lost control. But some of us were a little surprised when they put an embargo on North Korea’s largest export, coal, earlier this year. This was soon followed by a cryptic headline that the Chinese were prepared for dealing with an implosion of the North Korean regime.
After the Xi-TRump meeting, some of the headlines have become even more interesting. There have been stories of large troop gatherings on the Chinese boarder. And today we heard that the Chinese Global Times write that if North Korea doesn’t behave then the Chinese military might even strike before the Americans have a chance!
Trump is clearly turning up the temperature with the dispatch of the carrier strike group Carl Vinson. North Korea has already started to lash out with its typical rhetoric against this “armada”.
But for the first time in recent history of East Asia geo-politics, the USA not North Korea, is perceived as the unpredictable wild card!!
Does this mean that a solution is possible?
A small military confrontation is possible. The US does have the capability to intervene in North Korea in a multitude of ways, and using non traditional tactics including assassinating Kim. I do hope that something more serious can be averted.
However, if China is complicit, I do also think that Kim might also agree or be forced in to exile. A deal might have already been struck.
This could be a phenomenally interesting development in East Asian geopolitics. Shorter term, of course, significant resources might be spent on integrating the North. The knee jerk reaction of financial markets might be quite negative, given the lessons of East Germany. But the longer term picture could be quite different with the connectography of Asia changing and Korea’s strengths in technology being leveraged. Who knows, significant outside funding from the UN and other sources might be leveraged.
For the time being,there is talk that hedge fund have been buying credit default swaps on South Korea. That could still be the short-medium term trade for those inclined. For others, it might be to look longer term. And perhaps, for the Koreans themselves, some will be joyous at the opportunity of reunited families and the rebirth of an independent Korean nation…
More to come I am sure.
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