February 13, 2017 / 6:57 AM / 7 months ago

North Korea defies Trump's art of the deal

Passengers watch a TV screen broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - There is no Trump card in dealing with North Korea. President Donald Trump has used his unique form of diplomacy to soften potential conflicts between the United States and trade partners Japan and China. Pyongyang, which fired a missile on Sunday, is more troublesome. Unlike its neighbours, the hermit state offers little room for common ground on jobs or commerce. Trump’s business savvy will be of little use.

North Korea is flaunting an upgraded version of a ballistic missile it tested in August. For Washington, what’s worrying is that the new rocket has an extended range. Pyongyang is defying United Nations resolutions to pursue its ambition to develop a nuclear weapon that can strike U.S. territory. Pyongyang has pulled off similar stunts in the past, but this is the first since Trump took office.

In light of recent American overtures to China and Japan, the latest missile test looks like North Korea’s way of saying “don’t forget me”. A day before the launch, Trump held a cordial summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. And last week, Trump spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping by phone and agreed to honour the “one China” policy that keeps a fragile peace between China and Taiwan – something Trump had earlier implied he might tear up.

Trump is a businessman, and it shows in his foreign dealings. Before meeting with his Japanese counterpart, the new U.S. president criticized the Asian nation for devaluing its currency and scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a flagship trade pact championed by Abe. Japan responded with placatory promises of jobs for Americans. With China too, massive trade and investment flows create ample reason to keep things cordial.

North Korea presents a whole new challenge. With no trade flows or scope for its companies to invest in the United States, there is little reason to start talks with Pyongyang. Abe and Trump both strongly urged an end to missile tests and “rigorous implementation” of United Nations resolutions, but the risk is that more pressure on North Korea will only make it further resort to brinksmanship. For now the alternative – engaging North Korea economically – is not on the agenda. That means Trump’s art-of-the-deal diplomacy is less than helpful.

On Twitter twitter.com/JYang_in_HK

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