North Korea Talks Won’t Be What We Think

What’s going on in North Korea? Any chess master will tell you that when you’re focused on the pawn, you’re losing the game. We should be paying much closer attention to what’s going on in South Korea, China, Japan, and Australia. Whether he knows it or not, President Trump is breaking the first rule of proxy wars: Keep it proxy.

Kim Jong Un, and his father before him, have always been focused on just one goal. A face-to-face summit with the leader of the world’s prevailing superpower. Until now, they could do no better than colorful basketball veteran Dennis Rodman. Times have changed.

But what about the times have changed? Yes, we elected Donald Trump, who has stocked the State Department’s proverbial China shops with bulls. If this presidency came with anything close to a mandate from the American people, it is this: Break things. Protocols, precedents, expectations, commitments, treaties — all broken.

If the Bushes and Bill Clinton used the White House to forge a new world order after the Cold War dissipated, the current occupant seems intent on creating a new world disorder. Trump has always thrived in chaos in his business career, and he learned over the last decade that constant discord is also great for television ratings. He sees his role less as a world leader and more as an executive producer.

Trump’s meeting with Kim is less than a month away, but something strange is already happening. Kim released three hostages last week, and promises to blow up testing tunnels next week. Kim is dropping his bargaining chips before the dealing has begun. This is our best clue that the meeting itself is seen by one side as something other than a negotiation. Or, at least, what’s being negotiated is not what the other side thinks.

It’s not hard to figure out what Trump wants from the meeting. He wants North Korea to denuclearize. He wants to bring home our 28,500 troops stationed in the region. He wants the war between North and South Korea to officially end, so he can collect a Nobel Peace Prize.

All of those goals are eminently reachable, but at what cost? Has our eviscerated State Department retained enough talent even to contemplate what other parties might be gaining while Trump focuses on some new hardware for his mantle?

North Korea has always been a client state for larger forces. The longstanding stand-off with South Korea was emblematic of the Cold War that has still not completely finished. Russia has slowly ceded economic control of North Korea to China. China’s pathway to world dominance takes a different path than Russia took. Russia wanted to compete with capitalism. China wants to complete capitalism.

Economic forces sometimes drive change more quickly than political institutions can adapt. We’ve seen this happen over and over whenever an underutilized workforce is contiguous to an economic powerhouse.

Germany became the undisputed leader of the European Union when it put millions of East Germans to work in the 1980s. The United States used the same playbook to leap forward after NAFTA made the Mexican workforce available to American industry.

If a summit leads to a truce, which leads to unification of the island, Korea could become a regional powerhouse that dwarfs Japan and serves China. The United States will have no economic leverage because it withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership. It also will have no military leverage in the region, if Trump brings those troops home.

With China positioned as Korea’s benefactor, Japan may have to rethink its alliances. Without our military presence, the natural resources of Australia become even easier for China to claim. Once the economic engine for the world shifts away from the west, international trade will gravitate toward the Chinese yuan and away from the American dollar.

Once other nations don’t hold their sovereign debts in dollars, our budget deficits will explode. Losing South Korea, Japan, Australia, and all the benefits of issuing the world’s accepted currency — that’s what’s on the table in Singapore June 12. Let’s hope our dealmaker-in-chief knows it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.