Observations of an ex pat: Trump and the Korean Swamp

Hey, hey, hey, Donald Trump is off to Pyongyang. Or is it Beijing, Moscow or Seoul?

Anyway, that is not important. What is important is that he will before the end of May hold summit talks with North Korea’s Kim (rocket man) Jong-un to secure the disarming of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. The master of the art of the deal will negotiate peace in our time.

Maybe. More Likely, maybe not. Donald Trump has failed to master the dark arts of diplomatic negotiation. And he refuses to accept that discussions between governments require a different perspective and skill set than those practised by New York real estate moguls.

It is quite possible to read about a potential acquisition in the morning; walk into a boardroom in the afternoon; and walk out in the evening with the title deeds to a skyscraper.  Saving the world from the threat of nuclear annihilation is more complex.

There is a set procedure which involves months of careful preparations by diplomats who are experts in their field. These diplomats go by the nickname of “Sherpas” because their job is to prepare the way for the meeting of heads of government at “The Summit”. By the time  country leaders walk into the grand chamber, every ‘I’ has been dotted and ‘t’ crossed.  The only thing left for the political leaders is to sign the documents, shake hands, smile for the cameras and take all the credit.

This is the tried and tested system, and it works. It works because the ideologically-driven politicians tend to take a cack-handed approach to negotiations which lead to annoyance, frustration and finally, failure from which it is nigh impossible to clawback a later success.

The politicians provide a valuable service. They are the link between their respective populations, other populations and the negotiators. They provide the basic guidelines and goals, and , if talks fail, they take the blame—or at least, they should.

But in America’s case there is no Sherpa. The Trump Administration has not even appointed an ambassador to South Korea (there are no diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea). They had nominated someone for the job. He is Dr Victor Cha, a hard-line, right-wing world renown expert on North Korea. Then Trump invited Dr Cha to the Oval Office and asked him if he would support a limited military strike against North Korea. No, said Dr Cha, because of the dangers that it would quickly escalate to full-scale war.

Dr Cha’s nomination  was quickly withdrawn and no name has been put forward to fill the yawning vacuum.

The North Korean problem has been with us since 1953. The threat ( or potential threat) of North Korean nuclear weapons has been around since 1956. To be fair to Trump, he is now faced with boldly marching into a diplomatic swamp because his predecessors going back decades preferred the easy circuitous route.

Both Koreas want the peninsula eventually united.  North Korea wants it united under the flag of a hereditary communist dictatorship.  South Korea wants it united as a free market, democratically-oriented capitalist state.

The United States has provided protection for South Korea since 1953 with its 23,000-plus soldiers and its nuclear shield. China has had an alliance with North Korea since 1961.

Pyongyang has offered to disarm its newly acquired nuclear-tipped missiles if ”its security is assured.” It is unlikely that the Kim Jong-un will feel secure unless the United States withdraws both its troops and nuclear shield from South Korea. If the US withdraws from South Korea than it would leave Seoul at the mercy of Kim’s overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons.

The seemingly obvious alternative is the demilitarisation of the entire Korean Peninsula. But this would probably lead to the collapse of North Korea once their citizens are provided with a choice between the material delights and political freedoms of the south compared to the austerity and oppression found in the north.

Korea is the nuclear-tipped Gordian knot of world diplomacy. It does not need Trump charging in Alexander-like with a sharpened take it or leave it sword.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John Marriott 16th Mar '18 - 9:15am

    A good analysis, Caron. I reckon Kim and his clan must be salivating at the prospect of getting Trump to the negotiating table ( always assuming it WILL happen). I can’t help wondering whether Trump is underestimating the other side. Donald, this is no real estate deal. This is SERIOUS politics, with the potential, if it goes wrong, to affect us all. Mind you, the smart money said that Leave would never win the EU referendum, let alone Trump winning the US Presidency. So, what do I know?

  • William Fowler 16th Mar '18 - 9:46am

    The only problem with the above article is that the ethos has failed completely to solve the North Korea problem, Obama had all the conventional diplomatic arts at his disposal and either did nothing or failed… Agree that Trump is a somewhat dangerous character to have near the nuclear button but he has got as far as agreeing a meeting so give some credit. He is shaking things up in the USA rather than playing carry on politics which is all we get in the UK.

  • Trump enjoys this not because he want’s to solve a pressing global security problem, but because he and Kim are brothers in spirit. He likes unchecked strongmen because he aspires to and works towards being one himself (so far with support from the Republican party). Because of this orientation, he believes he understands how they tick and can strike deals with them. In doing so, he will apply his style: unprepared, unadvised, detail-free, bullying, and without limits to what he is prepared to trade away. Same with Putin, Erdogan, Xi or Duterte. He has no problem with murderous dictators, and, given a choice, would much rather hang out with one of them than with democratically elected and controlled leaders like May or Merkel who are bound by the rule of law, due process, and an established international order, all of which he despises.

    He will achieve nothing except the one thing he cares most about: him on the tele.

  • John Marriott 17th Mar '18 - 9:23am

    This article was posted yesterday morning and has so far (Sat 9.15am) attracted three responses. How revealing. It would appear that foreign affairs fails to excite most contributors to LDV. I find this rather sad, especially as Tom Arms has produced a quite insightful analysis of what could potentially be either a breakthrough or a disaster in geopolitical diplomacy. It would be interesting to know whether the regular LDV contributors have what passes for a ‘Weltanschauung’ or whether they are more wrapped up in the contortions of trying to explain ‘what is a liberal?’

  • For us in the U.K. the question must be about what do we want to see achieved. There seems little doubt that North Korea believes that nuclear weapons ensure that they are not taken over by others. There seems little doubt that China does not want an Iraq or a Libya on its doorstep. And of course the North Koreans must want a means of stopping spending vast amounts of money and becoming a new South Korea. But what do we want?
    My view is that it would be in the interest of the majority of our people to reduce arms expenditure – to recognise the real dangers of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons – to recognise that for our society to be sustainable we must have a country designed for all not just to provide a safe haven for those from other countries who need to hide ill gotten gains.
    Mr Trump will do what he wants. We need to look at ourselves.

  • Simon Banks 30th Apr '18 - 5:27pm

    China deserves more attention here. Obama, I suspect, was trying to work through the Chinese leaders, with whom he had a pretty good relationship, to influence North Korea. In the short term it didn’t work, but it’s a long-term game. China might reach a point at which it placed clear conditions on its nuclear guarantee and raised the possibility of withdrawing it. The Chinese are pretty fed up with the North Korean dynasty. Trump, though, is set on an arm-wrestling match with China. There are possible options – for example, North Korean nuclear disarmament coupled with a sharp reduction in the US presence in South Korea and a joint US – Chinese force patrolling the border. The Chinese have no interest whatsoever nowadays in South Korea becoming Communist.

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