There’s nothing coherent or rational about Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions. Not only are they contradictory to each other, but they often also contradict themselves, when they just seem to change overnight with whichever the wind seems to be blowing. One minute the Republican candidate is mouthing off about how he won’t get on with Britain, the next he’s completely changed his mind. But spout off enough random policy pronouncements and eventually you might strike one that actually makes sense. From the quagmire of confusion comes a break with American establishment policy that actually makes sense; Donald Trump is right that America should be talking to North Korea.
The first thing that must be said is that current US policy regarding North Korea has been an abject failure. Diplomatic efforts by the Clinton administration produced the unimaginatively named ‘Agreed Framework’, a deal with North Korea that would have dismantled its nuclear weapons program in exchange for two nuclear power plants. But while this deal did delay the North Koreans from plutonium processing for nine years, it fizzled as a hostile congress attempted to undermine the deal financially. The election of George W. Bush spelled the end of any thawing of relations between North Korea and the rest of the world; Bush ramped up the hard-line rhetoric, and, unsurprisingly, North Korea retaliated. The development of North Korean nukes resumed.
Bush did make fresh attempts to foster a diplomatic deal with Kim Jong-Il, but this was never matched with anything less than hostile and insulting rhetoric that undermined the realistic chances of anything meaningful being produced. After being threatened with military action and dubbed part of the “axis of evil” by Bush, it is perhaps unsurprising that North Korea felt compelled to ramp up the development of nuclear weapons, knowing full well that possession of them was the only failsafe way to prevent a US attack. Obama’s policy of “strategic patience”, which could perhaps better be described as “avoid the problem and hope it goes away”, has been to condemn, but largely ignore, new nuclear tests. But neither open hostility, nor avoiding the problem, is going to make it go away. America must engage.
Donald Trump will have taken none of this into account. Clearly, his position is nothing more than an attempt to court controversy by going against the grain. Why else would he so fervently oppose the Iran Deal, surely an almost exact replica of what negotiations with North Korea might hope to achieve? And when an American president does approach a negotiating table in Pyongyang, I certainly wouldn’t want it to be Trump. But Hillary Clinton’s lacklustre strategy seems to be the tired tightening-of-sanctions trope that has so far made no difference to the situation, and has instead allowed the North Koreans to creep further and further towards their own long-range nuclear missiles. In fact, in spite of sanctions, North Korea’s economy is currently doing pretty well, admittedly from an extremely low base. Yet, as we have seen time and time again, the North Korean leadership doesn’t respond well to bullying or pressure. They want to be respected, and treated as equals, or else the acts of defiance will continue.
Diplomacy has the ability to cut through years of bitter hostility and childish mudslinging; just look at Iran and Cuba and you’ll see a safer world being created as these countries are brought in from the cold. Even when the differences seem so insurmountable, the changing landscape of these relations show that the cordial acceptance of differences and the establishment of common ground is in the interests of everyone far more than needless hostility. The case of North Korea is more extreme than either of these, yet there is nothing to be gained from refusing to engage.
We all know the North Korea is unpredictable. We know that Kim Jong-Un is essentially a maniac with a total disregard for human life. He has no loyalty or respect to the North Korean people. We therefore know that a North Korean nuclear strike isn’t unthinkable, even if it remains extremely unlikely. What there’s no way of knowing is what we might be able to achieve if we get back to the negotiating table with the North Korean leadership. What is certain, however, is that if we don’t the nuclear tests will continue and eventually the North Koreans will successfully mount a nuke on a rocket. It’s only a matter of time. Even a fresh deal like Bill Clinton’s that delayed the nuclear acquisition process for nine years is better than nothing when something this critical hangs in the balance.