Is Donald Trump really the ultimate dealmaker? He may have met his match in Pyongyang

North Korea edges ever closer to be being able to nuke the US. “Not gonna happen”? It will and soon unless President Trump does something very bold

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Never mind for now the tetchy early-morning tweets and the row about Obama tapping his phone, Donald Trump has a much more pressing question at hand: how do you solve a problem like Korea?

It’s only a matter of time before they manage to get some kind of nuclear-armed missile in range of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. All could be, as the chaps in North Korea say, be transformed into a sea of fire in less time than a baseball game. Not to mention the fates of Seoul and Tokyo, Sydney and Kuala Lumpur. Trump has declared that it’s “not gonna happen”. Fine, Donald, but what’re are you gonna do about it?

One of Trump’s big claims during his campaign for the White House was that he was The Great Negotiator, and that the skills he acquired in the shark-infested waters of the New York City real estate world would be put to good use in international diplomacy. Very well, then. Now is the time for The Donald to go to Pyongyang and pull off the kind of diplomatic coup, The Big Deal, for which he would wish to be remembered.

Trump could, of course, just bomb the North’s military installations, but that risks the outbreak of a real war, the destruction of allies, massive loss of life and property, including American servicemen and women, unknowable environmental damage and global economic mayhem. President Trump would be concerned about at least some of those. Alternatively Trump could, like his predecessors, try to recruit China and Russia as intermediaries in the struggle to tame Kim Jong-un. But as experience shows, this has enjoyed only the most limited success (or, arguably, none at all). 

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All the time both in the face of overwhelming regional US military superiority and in response to alternate “sunshine” diplomacy and tough sanctions alike, the North Koreans just keep edging closer and closer to be being able to nuke the United States. “Not gonna happen”? It will, and soon – unless President Trump does something very bold.

So when he makes his historic trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, after his tour of the mausoleum where they keep Kim Il-Sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s bodies embalmed for eternity, what should the leader of the free world say to the leader of the last Stalinist state on earth over their sushi and Kobi steak banquet? 

There are a few strands to a successful approach. First Trump needs to understand that comical, touchy, eccentric and unpredictable as Kim seems, he is not mad (a bit like Donald, come to think of it). Indeed Kim’s very eccentricity and unpredictability are mere tactics to make the US and others wary about what he might do if cornered. Kim is, though, paranoid and concerned first and last about both his own survival and that of the regime. That is why he likes his weapons of mass destruction so much – same as Saddam Hussein (who ironically didn’t have any), Muammar Gaddafi and, in their time, the Soviets.

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Kim needs to be flattered and reassured about his survival. A presidential visit is a good start to that project. A suitable gift is in order; an armoured Cadillac maybe, which would be a nice practical thing or a new Kim-Trump Tower in for Pyongyang, or unlimited supplies of rice. All three, probably, and lots of photo opportunities. Can you imagine the Trump Handshake being inflicted on Kim? The synchronised horrors of the “mass games” being inflicted on the Trumps in retaliation? What a circus; it would make Nixon’s trip to Beijing look unambitious by comparison.   

But Trump has to make Kim aware that he too is an eccentric and unpredictable egotist, with a streak of vanity, paranoia and an unusual hairdo all of his own. Following that he needs to make some ritualistic noises about what he might do, unpredictably, when angered by North Korea’s aggressive testing of missiles. 

Third, he needs to convince Kim that, so far as Trump is concerned, he can carry on and terrorise his own people to his heart’s content. There will be no attempt, as with Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, to try and disarm him just so that the West can then get rid of him. The message from the Trump administration is clear already, and only needs amplification through an audacious exercise in personal diplomacy; the US is through with nation-building and trying to fix human rights in every corner of the world. If it suits America’s interests not to interfere in the internal affairs of another state, such as the DPRK, then America will leave them alone. Unlike Mexico or China, there are no complicating economic or migration issues to deal with in North Korea. It is simply a deal waiting to happen. 

If America became, in effect or formally, a guarantor of North Korea’s sovereignty; if it lifted the sanctions and permitted the North to keep its current weapons in return for a freeze on new activity; if it scaled back its military presence in the region, then the North should be satisfied enough not to want to pursue such an aggressive policy in future.

Kim could also be told that China wouldn’t be tempted to foment coup against him – which may explain a lot about Kim’s recent actions (a possible motive for the murder of his half-brother and Chinese resident Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, and for the earlier execution of his uncle, a senior military man in the regime and supposedly also close to Beijing). And the Russians would also be happy to have a new friend. 

What if President Trump persuaded Kim that the Americans, Chinese and Russians can all be his friend if he just packs his nuke testing in for a while? In which case the whole world, and especially America’s Western seaboard, could sleep more happily in its bed.

Ironically it is not so far away from the deal President Obama did with Iran, and Trump’s repudiation of that deal suggests he might not do something similar in North Korea. But you never know with Donald, and North Korea is a much more potent threat to his nation than Iran ever was.

All this would mean abandoning any pretence of a united, free, democratic Korean peninsula as a goal of American policy – but that is, indeed, only pretence. Such a bold Trump initiative might also find unexpected support in Far East, if South Korea and Japan could be persuaded that their terrifying neighbour can be dealt with in a peaceable way. 

In such a world, Donald can explain, Kim can be friends with all three superpowers and go back to enjoying the cognacs, caviar and Danish salami he is rumoured to favour. With sanctions relaxed, his people would be happier than they are now too.

Trump the peacemaker? Who’d have thought it? 

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