An Urban's Rural View

Playing Games With North Korea and China

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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In the early 1990s, having recently spent a couple weeks in North Korea, I predicted to associates that the country would soon collapse. In 2013, I called North Korea "laughable," assuring readers of this blog they could safely ignore Kim Jong-Un's threats to rain nuclear ruination on the U.S. (…).

This seems like a good time to weigh in again, what with Donald Trump counter-threatening "fire and fury" on North Korea and polls indicating Americans consider the Hermit Kingdom a "very serious threat" (…). Looking at North Korea today, I find myself agreeing with a sentiment attributed to John Maynard Keynes: "When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?"

North Korea's technological progress is no longer a laughing matter. The North Koreans have not only increased the range of their ballistic missiles. They've also finally produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that their missiles can carry (…). Their threats to use nuclear weapons against the U.S., which seemed silly when they lacked the ability to deliver on them, must now be taken seriously.

Mind you, Kim Jong-Un doesn't have to use nuclear weapons to achieve his objective, which is to remain in power. To deter attempts at "regime change," he need only possess a credible nuclear force and protect it from being wiped out in a preemptive first strike. He doesn't have to tell the world he has this retaliatory capacity; foreign intelligence agencies will know.

That he continues to test missiles and make blood-curdling threats, then, seems to confirm his reputation for being crazy. Rational nuclear powers don't threaten to use nukes; through four-plus decades of Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union never did. But the boundary between rational and crazy is sometimes hazy. Geopolitics to Kim has always been a game of chicken, a game he can win by convincing opponents he won't swerve so they'd better back off. The crazier he acts, the more likely he'll "win" -- or so he thinks.

Back when the threats were idle, the U.S. refused to play chicken with Kim. The threats didn't threaten us, nor did they deter us from invading North Korea, which we had never intended to do in the first place. So Washington dismissed the threats as unworthy of rhetorical response. As recently as three years ago, North Korea experts I spoke with were frustrated that no one in the White House or Congress was paying the country any attention.

Now that North Korea has, or is close to having, the ability to deliver on the threats, Washington is no longer ignoring them. President Trump isn't the sort to ignore anyone's blustery bragging, anyway, and like Kim he sees strategic value in letting the world think he's impulsive and unpredictable -- the so-called "madman strategy." With his "fire and fury" counter-threat Trump is telling Kim, "Game on."

Problem is, it's dangerous playing chicken with nuclear weapons. Talking tough appeals to domestic political bases but risks miscalculation. Neither side intends to go all the way, but when both are rattling their nuclear sabers neither can be sure of the other's real intention, and small provocations can easily be misinterpreted and lead to overreactions. The danger is especially great when, like the U.S. and North Korea, the players don't have regular channels of communication.

If there's method in Trump's madman strategy, it may lie less in intimidating North Korea than in keeping up the pressure on China to rein in its next-door neighbor and sometime client. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius puts it, this is the "hinge" moment for U.S.-China relations.

"If Washington and Beijing manage to stay together in dealing with Pyongyang," he writes, "the door opens on a new era in which China will play a larger and more responsible role in global affairs, commensurate with its economic power" (…).

The China connection matters to American farmers. China is a big market for our agricultural products and has the potential to be bigger. The links between trade and geopolitics are complex, of course. Trump has said he might ease up on his trade demands if China cooperates on North Korea. Still, a more cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China on North Korea can't ultimately be a bad thing for ag trade. A deteriorating relationship is definitely not a good thing.

That being the case, it's useful to examine the North Korea crisis from China's point of view. China doesn't want a nuclear-armed North Korea on its border; it's annoyed with what it sees as its neighbor's misbehavior. But the last thing China wants is U.S. troops on its border, and it fears that pushing Pyongyang too hard will topple Kim's regime and unite the country under the rule of a U.S.-backed South Korea.

The game of chicken catches China in the middle, then. It's unhappy enough with North Korea's continued nuclear bravado that it voted in the United Nations security council for the tougher sanctions on North Korea the U.S. had proposed. It's unhappy with Trump for matching Kim threat for threat, which it sees as both lacking in gratitude for China's UN vote and dangerously irresponsible.

No surprise, then, that the latest from China is a warning to both sides. North Korea is on notice that if it attacks first, it can't expect any help from China. The U.S. is on notice that if it attacks first, China will intervene to protect against regime change in Pyongyang (…).

No matter what China does, the U.S. will keep pressing China for concessions on trade. Even as the president tries to enlist China's help with North Korea, he is requesting an investigation of Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property (…). But he's doing it in a way that saves China's face, requesting it rather than simply initiating it. There is more than one game being played here.

Can Trump play both games well? Can he win China's cooperation on both North Korea and trade? Farmers need to stay tuned and watch how these games interact.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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