North Korea at the Table: Trump follows Nixon’s lead with foray into the unknown

In February 1972 Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), meeting Chairman Mao Zedong in addition to a slew of other political figures within the notoriously secretive communist regime.

Nixon meets Mao

Nixon called it the ‘week that changed the world’ and whilst one might attribute some hubris to this statement it is probably an accurate portrayal of a monumental turning point in history.

Ravaged by a fervent personality cult surrounding Chairman Mao – which blinded followers to his destructive policies such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – China found itself in isolation. Nixon’s visit opened up the possibility of a rapprochement with the Western world and the economic benefits this would ultimately bring to a country with a massive population and a burgeoning industrial base.

Brainwashed students attacked ‘capitalist roaders’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ during Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Since the Communists had won the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang to flee the mainland for Taiwan, the USA and its allies had refused to recognise the PRC. Instead, it was the Republic of China (ROC) that was acknowledged by Washington as the rightful ruler over the mainland, a stance formalised by President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to Taipei in 1960.

Eisenhower and Chiang Kai-shek in 1960

The shock prompted by Nixon’s visit a dozen years later – announced live on television the previous year – was therefore understandable. However, the machinations of Henry Kissinger and the PRC’s Premier Zhou Enlai had laid the foundations for the trip, which would serve to drive a further wedge between the PRC and its disappointed former patron, the Soviet Union.

How much of an impact the meeting had on the West’s ultimate victory in the Cold War is debatable but no doubt Nixon’s ‘opening up’ of China – in a diplomatic sense – reduced tensions with a potential enemy. By subsequently officially recognising the PRC as the legitimate and sole rulers of China, the USA sowed the seeds for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the years after Mao’s death.

The impact of Deng’s policies are less debatable, for they enabled China to become the world’s second largest economy, strengthened the mandate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – now under the firm control of Xi Jinping – and made the PRC a major geopolitical player across the globe. A world without a US-Chinese bilateral relationship is now unthinkable, not to mention undesirable.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping

Don’t expect President Donald Trump’s slated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to have such a positive impact. Indeed, will it have any major impact? Though the announcement of the summit was equally, if not more surprising, than the revelation of Nixon’s China jaunt, neither Trump nor Kim act with a level of subtlety or concession that allow for meaningful engagement.

Perhaps the level of bellicosity and brutal honesty at which these two ‘madmen’ operate is the only reason the meeting is happening in the first place. One would hope that senior diplomats and military figures within each administration will be present to temper their leaders’ excessive tendencies, for the opportunities abounding are unprecedented.

Alas, Trump listens and answers to nobody but himself, whilst the Kim dynasty has fostered a personality cult comparable to the darkest days of Mao. To challenge Kim’s instincts goes against a human’s natural tendency for self-preservation.

Realistically, the harsher sanctions being imposed on North Korea are taking hold. Yet as long as the upper echelons of the regime remain ensconced in luxury, and the military that girdles it stays onside, significant change is unlikely. The Kims have shown their willingness to allow their people to starve, confident that any popular uprising would either be suppressed by the military or, if necessary, by China, which has no desire to see chaos on its borderlands.

China fears that the collapse of the Kim regime will lead to a flood of civilians crossing its border from North Korea

A nuclear arsenal remains the only effective means to ensure the security and longevity of the Kim dynasty. Nothing President Trump says or does – and we wait with bated breath to see what on earth he will decide to do at the summit – is likely to change matters for the better. North Korea does not have the same potential to break out of its shell as the PRC had at the time of Nixon’s visit, nor does it have the inclination.

Sadly, the chance to destroy the nascent nuclear regime of North Korea has been missed by previous administrations. Trump can’t be blamed for that. Conned by the machinations of Kim Jong-Il in the 1990s, undermined by Chinese companies and banks that continue to siphon resources to the hermit state, and unable to break the failsafe that Beijing offers the North Korean regime, nuclear tensions in Northeast Asia are here to stay.

China’s Defiant Development: how long can it last?

Modernisation theory predicts that economic development will increase with access to financial capital and advanced technological education and gradually lead to greater political development along more democratic and pluralistic lines of governance. (Im, 1987)

Such a process has been particularly evident in the East Asian states of South Korea and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. China, however, remains a glaring exception.

One visits any major Chinese city today and it is clear that Western capitalism has triumphed. Branded stores line the main streets, there is a Starbucks on every corner, youngsters eyes’ remain glued to smartphones and provocative fashion statements merge into a crowd of designer labels.

Starbucks is just one of thousands of Western brands to become pervasive in China. There are few Chinese equivalents in the West
Starbucks is just one of thousands of Western brands to become pervasive in China. There are few Chinese equivalents in the West

After Deng Xiaoping opened up the Chinese economy to foreign investment and technological expertise in the 1980s, the slumbering Red Dragon has risen. Now the world’s second largest economy, China fits the bill for the first part of Modernisation theory.

Yet the idea that an “economically independent middle class [which China now undoubtedly has] whose threshold for autocratic rule would diminish” (Gomez, 2004) has not come to fruition. China remains a firmly autocratic country with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) retaining a strong grip on the reigns of power.

It is true that government protests are on the rise, yet these are predominantly restricted to isolated pockets of the country, far from the seats of political and economic power. More significantly, they are generally the work of the poorer classes who have been marginalised in the rural areas.

There is no argument that poverty remains in parts of China’s most prestigious cities. One need only cross a vast modern shopping mall from the trendy Xintiandi district in Shanghai to arrive at a series of derelict backstreets, where a person can buy a hot meal for 2 Yuan and residents sell their meagre wares from rickety stalls on the filthy sidewalks. Similarly, within shouting distance of the popular pavilions at Yu’uan Garden are the remnants of the area’s former inhabitants, poor workers whose families have been exiled to high-rises on the edge of the city.


Within a few hundred metres of the picturesque and popular pavilions of Yu'uan Garden are impoverished backstreets
Within a few hundred metres of the picturesque and popular pavilions of Yu’uan Garden are impoverished backstreets

That said, what major city doesn’t have its poorer districts? The fact that cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have rid their centres of the poorest people and created a pseudo-Western capitalist dreamworld has helped to stifle dissent.

The middle-class, meanwhile, remains content. Whilst growth rates have slipped from the hallowed 8%, at 7.7% they are still vastly superior to most other nations’. As long as economic empowerment continues, and the new generation of Chinese are given the opportunity to live the consumerist lifestyle that has become paramount to them, then they can tolerate their political restrictions.

China certainly faces challenges in the future. How long can the growing income inequality in the country be ignored? What of the complaints of ethnic minorities? The Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province have become increasingly volatile. Will the Chinese government use this terrorist threat as a rallying point for the majority Han, a nationalistic aside to cover-up the inherent unfairness of their political system? Certainly China has proved far more effective in controlling the Islamic threat than the West but in such a vast country, terrorism will become increasingly difficult to control.

Perhaps such is the rate of Chinese growth, that the predictions of Modernisation theory have yet to take effect. Taiwan and South Korea have far smaller populations, who benefited from a more even and sustained economic development, encouraging a more concerted agitation for political reform later on.

Despite the Han majority, there is no real homogenisation in China. People are out for themselves, taking advantage of the favourable economic conditions to create a future that would have looked impossible less than thirty years ago.

The Pudong skyline is emblematic of China's development
The Pudong skyline is emblematic of China’s development

As the Shanghai Tower reaches imperiously into the Pudong skyline, surrounded by the other brazen structures of capitalist success, one can imagine Mao turning in his grave. Yet with China now a great power, and the political authority of the CCP still secure, it is hard to believe that the barbaric Chairman does not at least have a wry smile spread across his countenance.


Gomez, E.T. (ed.) (2004), The state of Malaysia: ethnicity, equity, and reform (RoutledgeCurzon: London)

Im, H.B. (1987), ‘The Rise of Bureaucratic Authoritarianism in South Korea’, World Politics, Volume 39(2), pp. 231-257