Who will be the adult in the room on North Korea?

Author: Peter Van Ness, ANU

Two spoiled, narcissistic, self-deluded bully boys — US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — are playing a game of nuclear weapons ‘chicken’ at the world’s expense. This game could cost the lives of hundreds of thousands if it finally leads to war.

It is time that someone puts an end to this outrageous folly.

But who? Who would have the political stature, the authority and the credibility with both the United States and North Korea to take such a stand?

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, 8 July 2017. (Photo: Reuters/ Saul Loeb).

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, might be an obvious choice, but both Trump and Kim have shown their disdain for the United Nations, and the UN Security Council has already taken a number of unproductive steps to deal with the crisis.

Russia’s Putin might be willing to give it a try, but given the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the US presidential election, he has no real authority in the United States. There is also no reason why he would have much leverage in North Korea.

The recently re-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to mind because of her obvious political authority. But the role that she might play in Europe does not easily transfer to East Asia where she would probably be seen as too distant from the problem.

Hence, Chinese President Xi Jinping stands out as the clear choice. But this cannot simply be in the role that the US has continually pressed upon him — namely to force Kim Jong-un to agree to US terms.

Instead, the true ‘adult in the room’ would have to stand separately and independently between the two boys to point to the extremely dangerous absurdity of the tensions they are fuelling. He would have to point to their shared responsibility in creating a crisis that is simply not acceptable in today’s world.

Xi Jinping is currently preoccupied with the task of cementing his power within the Chinese Communist Party at the 19th Party Congress, scheduled to open on 18 October.  But the world would welcome his taking the time to intervene in this escalating US–North Korean confrontation.

Xi gave the keynote at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in January on the theme of ‘Jointly Shoulder Responsibility of Our Times’. He was talking about economics and globalisation, but the ideas he presented can also apply to security relationships. In effect, Xi was elaborating China’s claim to be taken seriously as one of the world’s most important powers.

He called for constructive action: ‘If one is always afraid of bracing the storm and exploring the world, he will sooner or later get drowned in the ocean’. He continued: ‘The history of mankind tells us that problems are not to be feared. What should concern us is refusing to face up to problems and not knowing what to do about them’.

He concluded his speech, saying:  ‘When encountering difficulties, we should not complain about ourselves, blame others, lose confidence or run away from responsibilities. We should join hands and rise to the challenge. History is created by the brave. Let us boost confidence, take actions and march arm-in-arm toward a bright future’.

Xi Jinping, more than any other world leader, has close working relations with both the US and North Korea. China has gained a global political stature for its leaders by means of its unprecedented economic growth, and President Xi has achieved the authority to act in international affairs as one of the world’s major players with respect to events having global significance.

If there were a war between the United States and North Korea, everyone would suffer. Possibly hundreds of thousands of people would die. China would suffer too. Refugees from North Korea, the problem of a failed state on their border and some probability of escalation to a larger scale conflict between the US and China would prove costly. So Xi has a key stake in avoiding this conflict.

President Xi could be the adult in the room, to stand in the middle of the Trump–Kim conflict and insist that both sides compromise and de-escalate.

Speaking in the name of a world that wants no more wars, Xi Jinping could move all parties to begin to explore new roads to reconciliation and accommodation on the Korean peninsula. He could show the world that China was prepared to accept the responsibility of a major power to help resolve the most pressing problems of our time.

No other world leader is better positioned than President Xi to be ‘the adult in the room’.

Peter Van Ness is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School, The Australian National University.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments