While the substance of Donald Trump’s first Presidential trip to Asia will be largely predictable, one issue surrounding the trip carries an element of surprise: Sill North Korea test a nuclear weapon or ballistic missile while Trump is in the region?
The DPRK has a history of conducting powerful weapons tests during, after or just before prominent regional events. Most recently, this came to fruition when Pyongyang successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb hours before the BRICS summit commenced in Xiamen, China.
With the US once again flying nuclear capable B-1B Lancers near North Korea in what can only be described as a simulated bomb drop exercise, shortly before Donald Trump takes off for his trip to Asia which includes a visit to South Korea, it is fair to say that provocation is in the air.
North Korea already authored a kind of “greeting card” for Trump, which said that the US President is a “nuclear war maniac” who is “incurably mentally deranged”.
The question now is, will North Korea do for Trump’s visit what it did for the BRICS summit? The following items must be considered when speculating on such an event:
1. China’s anger
It is no secret that ever since Kim Jong-un assumed power after the death of his father, China’s relations with the DPRK have plummeted. While unlike the US, China continues to respect North Korea’s sovereignty, China incrasingly considers the DPRK to be a regional headache, at a time when regional stability is Beijing’s paramount consideration, not least to insure the smooth construction of the One Belt–One Road trading and infrastructure mega-project.
At the same time, China is deeply offended by the Trump administration’s patronising rhetoric which not so subtly indicates that the DPRK is a uniquely Chinese responsibility, something which is objectively untrue, especially in 2017 when the DPRK continues to become increasingly self-sufficient and with China less and less interested in good relations with the government in Pyongyang.
Nevertheless, were North Korea to test a weapon or missile during or surrounding Trump’s visit to the region, China would be angered by the DPRK’s breaking of the regional equanimity that China has invested a great deal of political capital in. Such a weapons test would equally inure Chinese wrath for feeding the mythical narrative from the Trump White House that China is some how impotent when it comes to “controlling” the DPRK.
From Pyongyang’s perspective, there are pros and cons to angering China. The obvious cons involve further alienating a powerful neighbour and a possible vital partner, one which could be an economic lifeline should the economic situation in the DPRK deteriorate.
Geopolitical expert Andrew Korbyko describes this mentality in the following way:
“North Korea acutely understands this state of affairs, hence why it assumed that it could do whatever it wanted in terms of weapons tests and the like while taking the aforesaid Chinese aid for granted, but that appears to be changing now because of just how much he’s embarrassed China, which admittedly seems to have been on purpose.
It can never be known with any certain degree of accuracy what Kim Jong-Un or his junta backers are thinking, but observations about North Korea’s behavior suggest that it’s intentionally trying to irk China a bit because it might have gotten too paranoid about the prospects of Beijing cutting a deal with Washington against Pyongyang. Ironically, however, North Korea appears to be making this fear a self-fulfilling prophecy through its short-term actions of always trying to upstage China in the international arena.
Instead of resulting in more aid, which for all intents and purposes serves the role of bribes for the North Korean “deep state” (permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies), Kim Jong-Un risks forcing China to downscale the said assistance in order to save face in front of the international community and consequently endanger the stability of his country”.
Because of this, Pyongyang will likely factor these considerations into its wider “cost benefit analysis” over a weapons test during the Trump visit.
2. The Russia Factor
In many ways, the Soviet Union was a far closer ally to the DPRK during the Cold War than China was, both during the Mao era or the reformist Deng era.
Russia maintains better contacts with Pyongyang than most international powers and unlike China, is less offended when the DPRK does something to disturb the would be placidity of East Asia.
Unlike China, Russia, including its President Vladimir Putin, has been very frank about the fact that North Korea has legitimate fears from a US regime which toppled countries that did not have nuclear weapons. In this sense, while Russia condemns all of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testes with the same sincerity as China, Russia also accepts that the DPRK has a legitimate need for a deterrent.
In this sense, a DPRK weapons test during a Trump visit would expose the limitations of US treats as well as the limitations of Chinese economic carrots and stick tactics. This would have the effect of enhancing Russia’s role as a preferred mediator in any future agreement, such as the tripartite economic cooperation scheme between Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul, that President Putin presented during September’s Eastern Economic Forum, an event attended by a North Korean delegation and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
In this sense, North Korea may determine that angering China and exposing the weakness behind US threats to the DPRK, may pay off in the medium term as Russia’s stoicism in the face of such things appears to be more enduring than that of any other nation.
Russia itself would prefer the DPRK not to conduct any tests, but even if they do, Russia will not respond vengefully nor hysterically, something which works in the favour of all concerned regional players, including the DPRK.
3. The Trump Factor
If one is to take Donald Trump’s ‘reality tv’ style threats against North Korea at face value, there is nothing more that Trump would love, than to launch a cowboy crazy attack on North Korea, ordered while he is in Asia.
The issue here is that for all of Trump’s bluster and threats, he has yet to make good on them outside of the area on continued sanctions. Furthermore, Trump’s embattled but still standing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is careful to counter Trump and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s hysterical threats with a far more measured and generally anti-war approach. It is also widely believed that Generals Kelly, Mattis and McMaster who are thought to hold the real power in the Trump White House, are ultimately less trigger happy than their Dr. Stranglove stereotypes would suggest.
With China stating that it will not allow a US attack on North Korea, unless North Korea strikes first (a nucleartest is not considered a strike in this scenario), Trump’s Asia visit could actually ignite a wider war in the region.
Because of the unpredictability of the Trump administration, there is an element of a ‘game of chicken’ to this scenario. Ultimately however, while Trump would scream and shout if North Korea did test a weapon during or surrounding his visit, conventional wisdom still dictates that the US would bark but not bite as a result.
The state of US relations with Asia have become so lacklustre and so predictable, that it is something of an irony that the most ‘exciting’ thing about Donald Trump’s first visit to Asia is playing the guessing game about North Korea’s possible nuclear or missile tests. This is a comment both on the state of America’s increased irrelevance in Asia, as well as the fact that for all the rhetoric and bluster on all sides, North Korea is capable of deterring military action from major superpowers.