Taming North Korea may fall to Seoul, Tokyo tag team

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the 72nd anniversary of liberation from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule on Liberation Day in Seoul, South Korea, August 15, 2017.  Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

North Korean dramatics have thrust three wannabe strongmen into the global spotlight: Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang brandishing a Mini-Me nuclear arsenal; Donald Trump breathing “fire and fury” in Washington; and Xi Jinping burying his head in the sand in Beijing.

Less attention is on two leaders who may be the best hope of restoring calm: South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Japan’s Shinzo Abe.

The conventional wisdom, if any can be found in this geopolitical dumpster fire, is that China’s Xi must curb Kim. And surely Pyongyang’s main trading partner has considerable leverage, but Trump’s ham-handed Twitter attacks may be closing that door.

The most powerful mainland leader since Deng Xiaoping can’t be seen bending the knee to a US counterpart who accused China of “raping” American workers and threatens a trade war. Next time, Mr. President, maybe think back-channel diplomacy.

Enter Abe, a nationalist who may be able pick up some of the pieces, and Moon, the least blustery character on this stage.

The play is an old-fashioned game of good cop/bad cop.

The play is an old-fashioned game of good cop/bad cop.

Clearly, Moon is the good cop. President for just 97 days, he wants to encourage détente with North Korea, resurrecting the “Sunshine Policy” of 1998 to 2008.

That flop admittedly didn’t tame Kim Jong-il, but since the stick of sanctions and threats hasn’t gotten the world anywhere with Kim Jong Un, it can’t hurt for Moon to open diplomatic channels and try some carrots.

Abe is in a unique position to get the attention of Kim and Xi on behalf of bad cop Trump.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 15, 2017. Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 15, 2017. Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters.

That can be accomplished by welcoming deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems around Japan.

Xi pretty much went ballistic when Seoul green-lighted the US missile shield, clamping down on tourism, canceling K-pop concerts and finding pretexts to stifle South Korean commercial interests. Imagine how Xi might react to archrival Japan following suit.

Abe also could welcome Aegis Ashore weapons-interception systems. His former defense secretary, Tomomi Inada, recently visited Guam to check out those US defences.

The problem for China isn’t just the hardware, but the radar and surveillance capabilities it puts in Beijing’s backyard.

Few moves would perturb Xi’s Communist Party more, or perhaps hold greater promise to catalyze Beijing to curtail trade with North Korea that’s grown 10% this year amid tightening United Nations sanctions.

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has demurred, fearing retribution from the biggest trading nation. But the Kim-Trump show is putting Japan directly in harm’s way. That’s greatly weakening the lost-gross-domestic-product argument.

Going the THAAD route serves another purpose for Abe, who craves a bigger role in global affairs for Japan: that of key powerbroker. It would dovetail with Abe’s push to reinterpret the pacifist constitution so Tokyo can project military strength abroad.

There’s virtually zero chance Kim will give up his nukes. He’s seen what happened to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi without nuclear deterrence.

Much is said about Xi Jinping's failure to 'rein in' North Korea's Kim Jong-un, but China has plenty of internal problems.

Much is said about Xi Jinping’s failure to ‘rein in’ North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

It’s also true that Beijing has never seriously tried to tighten the screws on Pyongyang. Xi is loath to destabilize Kim’s regime, fearing a massive refugee crisis on China’s 1,400-kilometer border with the North. But why not experiment?

True, China is banning imports of iron ore and coal as part of new UN sanctions. But it remains to be seen how porous these actions might be. China Inc. is skilled at finding ways to fill Kim’s coffers in Pyongyang.

Xi should go much further. Why not warn Kim that if he doesn’t behave, Beijing will start halving all energy shipments (of which China provides 90%) and start major cuts to the $100 million of steel China supplied Pyongyang in 2016.

Beijing could clamp down on trade flows in border cities like Dandong. Slowly and methodically, but in ways that let Kim know the status quo can’t continue.

Trump’s Twitter feed can’t do that. In fact, it may be having the opposite effect: pushing Xi to a place where he can’t work with this White House.

An Abe/Moon tag team could just be the global community’s secret weapon.

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