Trump brinkmanship on North Korea. No term limit for Xi Jinping. Shinzō Abe in trouble. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump and Kim the madmen across the water

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un with South Korean national security director Chung Eui-yong during their meeting in Pyongyang last week.

Donald Trump sometimes gets it right. Take this comment he made last weekend about the meeting he’s agreed to hold with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un: “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.”

He emphasised the point on Tuesday by sacking his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, apparently for lack of sycophancy, by Twitter announcement. There goes one more adult from the room. Tillerson’s proposed replacement is Mike Pompeo, the former congressman and Tea Party mad hatter Trump had made director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Pompeo’s nominated successor is CIA deputy director Gina Haspel, most noted so far for her role as a clandestine officer in supervising the torture of two terrorism suspects at a black prison in Thailand in 2002 and then destroying the videotapes of the interrogation.

Before this point, some strategic analysts had been inclined to agree that Trump’s “madman” style of brinkmanship, repeating Richard Nixon’s historic gambits with the Soviet Union and China as farce, might just pay off.

Talk of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities had got China and Russia to sign off late last year on the most punitive sanctions squeeze ever. China’s flurry of preparations for a cross-border flow of refugees showed it was taking the raised possibility of Korean conflict very seriously.

With estimates Pyongyang will run out of hard currency within six months as a result of the sanctions, Kim’s sudden switch from belligerent weapons testing to diplomacy was explicable. After overtures to Seoul around the Winter Olympics, he told the South Koreans he wanted to meet Trump, to discuss “denuclearisation”.

No conditions set: United States and South Korean forces could hold the yearly exercises that had been postponed from March until April to help the Olympic atmospherics, and North Korea would not be setting off nuclear explosions or testing missiles beforehand. On March 8 Trump decided on the spot to accept. Tillerson, away in Africa, learnt about the decision afterwards, as did the defence secretary, James Mattis, who was in Oman.

So far, so good. Better jaw-jaw than war-war, nothing else has worked et cetera. Trump portrayed it as Kim crying uncle – he himself had made no concessions. But as Jeffrey Lewis, one of America’s most seasoned analysts of nuclear and Korean affairs, noted: “The meeting is the concession.”

The North Koreans have been angling for more than two decades for their leader to sit down on equal terms with a serving US president. Recognition is what they want. Such a meeting, for previous administrations, would have been North Korea’s final reward for good behaviour, preceded by “concrete and verifiable” steps to dismantle its nuclear capability and reduce tensions on the peninsula. Instead, Trump has given the prize away for a promise to just talk about “denuclearisation”, which Kim will consider includes US nukes as well.

Kim will know exactly what he wants: an end to the US security guarantee for South Korea, and termination of the 1950 United Nations Security Council resolution authorising collective defence against Pyongyang. At the minimum he will gain kudos, show up Trump as a fool and grab more time to work on his nuclear arsenal. Trump prepares for the meeting clueless but convinced of his deal-making prowess, with his state department leaderless, and policy circles of expertise reduced. The two top Korea negotiators, Joseph Yun and Victor Cha, have just been let go from government services.

At least Trump seems unlikely to perform as dupe in Pyongyang. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in will meet Kim first at Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone. Kim hasn’t left North Korea in the six years since he succeeded his father Kim Jong-il, who went only to then-friendly Beijing and Moscow by special train. The latter will probably be the venue for Trump’s meeting, if it happens.

Non-stop party

Only two brave souls out of some 3000 delegates to China’s National People’s Congress voted against the removal of term limits for the country’s state president, the sweeping majority enabling Xi Jinping to stay in office beyond the recent norm of a decade.

It’s not a good look. Just four months ago, he was suggesting the Chinese political model was something for countries in places such as Africa to emulate. Now it seems China is following the lead of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and other despots in Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, Algeria, Chad and Uganda jiggling term limits.

However, Xi is not exactly burning down the Reichstag at the Great Hall of the People. The post of state president is a largely ceremonial one, fitting the diplomatic and media paradigms of the outside world. Inside China, everyone knows the real position of power is the general secretaryship of the Communist Party, and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, commanding the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), both jobs usually held by the same man.

Since becoming party leader in late 2012, and president in March 2013, Xi has been steadily collecting more power. This was partly through his anti-corruption campaign, removing scores of potential rivals and critics from senior party, military and state roles. Partly it was done by applying the best IT that Silicon Valley can provide to censorship and surveillance. In October, he gathered supreme command powers over the PLA by abolishing the four “general departments” that previously gave orders to the military.

The move to abolish the presidential term limits was flagged in advance at the party’s congress in October when no heirs apparent were elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, as Xi himself had been at the start of predecessor Hu Jintao’s second term as general secretary in 2007.

Now Xi has the chance to show whether he will use this power to carry out hard economic reforms, or if power is an end in itself. That some of his senior colleagues think it opens up the possibility of Mao Zedong-style calamitous mistakes came when the party’s new central committee failed to agree on the term-limit removal during two “plenum” meetings since October. It was about to hold a third plenum when Xi pre-empted deliberations by announcing the removal as a done deal.

That may not be easily forgotten in China. The cyber police have been kept busy removing social media allusions to power grabs.

Kindergarten cop

As in Nixon’s visit to Beijing to meet Mao in 1972, Trump’s agreement to a summit with Kim Jong-un came as a surprise and shock in Tokyo. As with Malcolm Turnbull, Shinzō Abe had been strongly lining up with Trump for a possible stoush with the North Koreans.

This humiliating lack of consultation was followed up by Trump’s announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminium imports. Unlike Canada, Mexico and Australia, neither Japan nor South Korea have been exempted, despite having as much claim or more to be strategic allies.

Into the bargain, Abe was caught out this week when his Ministry of Finance revealed officials had removed the names of his wife, Akie, and various members of his Liberal Democratic Party from records showing them backing a discounted sale of government land to a kindergarten run by a kindred soul to the prime minister.

The Morimoto kindergarten in Osaka gets the kiddies to recite the “Rescript on Education” issued by the Emperor Meiji in 1890 that exhorts devotion to the nation, gives them a sanitised version of pre-1945 events, and tells them disparaging things about Chinese and Koreans. It could all bring Abe’s hopes of a third term as LDP leader and thus PM to an end.  

The 1972 events inspired the John Adams opera Nixon in China, with Nixon a melancholic baritone, Mao a heldentenor (heroic tenor), and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing described as a “shrieking coloratura” full of erotic desires and fantasies. Surely a cast that could include Trump, Kim Jong-un, the ghosts of Kim’s murdered uncle and half-brother, his Pyongyang beauty squads, Trump’s circle of chancers, and the likes of Stormy Daniels merits an opera on the same scale: Trump in the DMZ.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Madmen across the water".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.