war on the rocks

Entry 75: Why the Xi-Kim Meeting Matters

March 28, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 75th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

As I wrote yesterday, it would be a big deal if Kim Jong Un traveled to Beijing.  Well it turns out he did.  Lots of photo ops and press statements to prove it.  I’m shocked, precisely because it’s so significant.  It was a love-fest between two countries that loathe each other.

So let me restate why this matters.  It’s a geopolitical failure of the United States, and an indictment (as if it needed any more indictments) of Trump’s maximum pressure strategy toward North Korea.  Trump’s managed to drive an enemy of the United States into the arms of its strategic competitor even though the two distrust and dislike each immensely.

Think about that.  A strategic realignment in Northeast Asia against U.S. interests.  Close—even friendly—Chinese ties to North Korea will involve aid, trade, and sanctions alleviation in contravention of maximum pressure.  Worst of all, both China and North Korea may both tell the United States what it wants to hear, but the facts on the ground (watered down sanctions pressure and North Korea still keeping nukes) will remain the same.

There’s good news here in a sense: As long as the United States doesn’t launch a preventive war against North Korea, Kim Jong Un’s strategy means he will be redoubling his efforts to rejoin the international community and focus on the economy…but as a nuclear state, of course.  Provocations will slow or cease altogether, but the risk of a deep fissure between the United States and South Korea will grow.

So the challenge for the United States and everyone else now is how to deal with a North Korea that acts friendly toward the outside world but retains nuclear weapons in spite of decades of UN resolutions and sanctions.

I wrote less than 200 words today; quite possibly my most unproductive day yet.  But I had a series of back-to-back appointments in the morning, a 90-minute panel presentation at lunch time, and an old friend from Washington in town in the afternoon (Good seein’ ya, Zack!).  Busy day.

I have two more normal days of work and then I’m off to another conference that I’ve yet to prepare for.  That may well screw up my #NukeYourDarlings rhythm, just a heads up.

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.