When Donald Trump met with Henry Kissinger to discuss foreign policy and national security, it is not absurd to wonder who was educating whom on North Korea and China.
There is reason to believe the brash and crude businessman, purveyor of “The Art of the Deal,” sees the situation more clearly than the former secretary of state and erudite author of “World Order,” “Diplomacy,” and numerous other essential readings on foreign affairs.
The two self-described realists agree on the danger presented by a North Korean regime led by Kim Jong Un and armed with nuclear weapons. In his 2011 book, “On China,” Kissinger warned:
“The spread of these weapons into hands not restrained by the historical and political considerations of the major states augurs a world of devastation and human loss without precedent even in our age of genocidal killings.”
Trump put it slightly less elegantly after North Korea announced it had tested a hydrogen bomb in January: "It's something I've been talking about for a long time. You have this madman over there who probably would use it." Trump has also called Kim “a maniac.” (The more knowledgeable and measured Marco Rubio preferred “lunatic.”)
Trump sees Kim as a serious and formidable threat:
“You gotta give him credit. How many young guys -- he was like 26 or 25 when his father died -- take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden ... he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean this guy doesn't play games. And we can't play games with him.”
Kissinger has not indicated whether he is as impressed with Kim’s ruthlessness and its implications for U.S. foreign policy.
As for China’s role, both men view it as decisive -- though Trump seems to have grasped the reality quickly and intuitively, whereas Kissinger agonized over it for decades. He wrote in 2005:
“[North Korea] is often presented as an example of China's failure to fulfill all its possibilities. But anyone familiar with Chinese conduct over the past decade knows that China has come a long way … China’s patience in dealing with the problem is grating on some U.S. policymakers [but] the North Korean problem is more complex for China than for the United States.”
In 2009 Kissinger wrote:
“Too much of the commentary on the current crisis has concerned the deus ex machina of Chinese pressure on North Korea and complaints that Beijing has not implemented its full arsenal of possibilities. But China has reason to fear chaos along its borders … [I]t is more sensitive than its partners to the danger of destabilizing the political structure of North Korea. Great respect must be paid to Chinese views.”
In 2011 Kissinger explained, “for the first ten years of North Korea’s nuclear program, China took the position that it was a matter for the United States and North Korea to settle between themselves.”
The varying rationales for Chinese inaction go on, but Trump is having none of it. On Jan. 6, he told Fox News:
“China has … total control over North Korea. And China should solve that problem. And if they don't solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China … [T]hey're toying with us with North Korea. China should do it. They say they can't, they 'don't have that power.' They're toying with our politicians, who don't know what they're doing.”
Trump said the advance of North Korea’s nuclear program is making the situation ever more urgent:
“We’ve got to close it down, because he's getting too close to doing something. Right now, he's probably got the weapons, but he doesn't have the transportation system. Once he has the transportation system, he's sick enough to use it. So we’d better get involved.”
Days later, he came back to the argument in a CBS interview:
“China has control -- absolute control -- of North Korea. They don't say it, but they do, and they should make that problem disappear. I would get China to make that guy disappear in one form or another very quickly.”
Asked if he was calling for Kim’s assassination, Trump responded, “Well, you know, I’ve heard of worse things, frankly. I mean, this guy is a bad dude. And don’t underestimate him.”
Interestingly, given all his apologetics for China’s failure to use its leverage against North Korea, Kissinger himself contemplated direct U.S. military action to address the growing problem. On “The Diane Rehm Show” in 1994, Kissinger said he once believed the United States should unilaterally “knock out the nuclear capability of North Korea, if necessary, even by aerial strikes.” Former Defense Secretary William Perry also favored this approach.
But Kissinger came to believe it would be “too dangerous for us to do this alone given the general mentality that now exists in Washington and unwillingness to support it.” Instead, he said we should tell China “we are willing to go as far as you are willing to go in doing away with the nuclear capability ... including a blockade and total economic isolation.”
Under a Trump administration, Washington’s mentality might be quite different. Would Kissinger support such drastic action against North Korea now, or has the opportunity passed? Was this part of the Trump-Kissinger discussion?
For that matter, would a President Trump actually pursue such a belligerent strategy toward North Korea? Or was it all just one more example of hastily chosen campaign rhetoric meant to make headlines?
Similarly, how seriously would a Trump administration pursue a strategy of encouraging South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons?
Again, Kissinger has often argued that China opposes, or should oppose, North Korea’s nuclear program, if for no other reason than that it encourages its neighbors to acquire their own weapons.
“If North Korea were to be accepted as a nuclear power, it is highly likely that Japan and South Korea and possibly other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, would ultimately also join the nuclear club, altering the strategic landscape of Asia. China’s leaders oppose such an outcome.”
Will the prospect of that scenario under a Trump presidency motivate Beijing and Pyongyang to reconsider the wisdom of their respective courses? Trump’s idea certainly caught the attention of a leading North Korean foreign policy expert. Ri Jong Ryul, deputy-director general of the Institute of International Studies in Pyongyang, stated:
“Donald Trump's remarks are totally absurd and illogical. The U.S. tells us to give up our nuclear program, is preparing a nuclear attack against us, and on the other hand would tell its allies to have nuclear weapons. Isn't this (a) double standard?”
Might the elements of a deal be in the making? Could North Korean denuclearization, or at least a freeze, be exchanged for non-nuclear guarantees from Japan and South Korea? Or did Ri immediately throw cold water on that possibility?
“We're not really interested in the U.S. election. We don't care who becomes the next U.S. president. Whether Republicans or Democrats take power, it has nothing to do with us. American politicians have always had a hostile policy against [North] Korea.”
In the past few weeks, Trump’s tone toward the North Korean dictator has softened a bit. In response to a question about a Kim meeting, Trump responded, "I would speak to him; I would have no problem speaking to him."
Overall, Trump’s harsh critique of China’s enabling role with North Korea is closer to the mark in terms of sound policy analysis than was Kissinger’s (and much of the foreign policy establishment’s) over the past two decades. Trump may lack the experts' knowledge about the China-North Korea relationship, but he knows the one thing that matters most.
But Trump’s sudden receptivity to a Kim meeting revives one of the criticisms laid out in a letter from more than 100 Republican former foreign policy and national security officials (I was among them) in March:
“His vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle. He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.”
One or two of Trump’s ideas on national security may make some sense, but for many, he is the wrong person to move them forward. A respectable conservative needs to step up while November ballot access is still possible in most states. Otherwise, a desperate but well-organized write-in campaign may be the last resort in what could well become a four-candidate race.
The Kim Jong Uns of the world demand a serious and credible American commander-in-chief.
Joseph A. Bosco served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-2006. He is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest.