22 August 2019
Both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump had their own reasons to push for the summit that took place in Singapore on June 12. Photo: Reuters
Both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump had their own reasons to push for the summit that took place in Singapore on June 12. Photo: Reuters

US-China-N Korea: How ‘scarecrow diplomacy’ works

In the realm of international relations studies, there is a field known as “scarecrow diplomacy”.

And the recent summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a textbook example of how world leaders are using “scarecrow diplomacy” to serve their own political purposes.

“Scarecrow” generally refers to any country, person or entity deliberately portrayed by politicians as a threat to national security which can be used to their political advantage or to advance their own political agenda.

After returning from his summit with Kim in Singapore, Trump boasted on Twitter that everybody in the world is now feeling safer because there is no longer any nuclear threat from North Korea.

Later he added that there had been a grave concern around the world about the prospect of an all-out war on the Korean peninsula before he took office, and that his predecessor, Barack Obama, also regarded North Korea as the “biggest and most serious issue” facing the United states.

However, thanks to his untiring efforts, according to Trump, everything has now been taken care of.

But the truth is, North Korea never constituted a real national security threat to the US.

Pyongyang’s nuclear technology might be coming of age under Kim, but his ballistic missiles are only capable of striking Guam at the farthest, notwithstanding the proliferation of cheap animated videos made by North Korean state media and state-sponsored hackers that portray the destruction of the White House.

All the missile test-firings, saber-rattling and intense anti-US propaganda mounted by Pyongyang were intended not to intimidate the Americans, but to boost Kim’s own prestige among his subjects so as to consolidate his domestic political power.

To Kim, the US is a handy “scarecrow” which he could fully utilize to achieve his political goals.

In contrast, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis did indeed constitute a real national security threat to the US.

Meanwhile, the reason why American elites have been taking North Korea so seriously over the years is not because they are sincerely worried about the security of their Japanese and South Korean allies, but rather, because they need Pyongyang as a “scarecrow” to justify the huge US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

And despite the fact that there have been calls within Japan and South Korea for the US to withdraw its troops, substantial American military presence in the region is something that is deemed not negotiable by Washington.

For decades the US government has been relying heavily on the American forces stationed in Japan and South Korea to maintain its sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific to counter Chinese and Russian expansion, and to pitch arms sales to its allies.

This time around Trump is again using North Korea as a scarecrow to advance his own agenda, but perhaps with different focus.

In my view, Trump mounted a fierce war of words against Kim which lasted for months because he wanted to boost the North Korean leader’s status and make him look more like an equal adversary.

Likewise, Trump aggressively rattled his saber at North Korea prior to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in order to create an impression that Pyongyang did constitute a real threat to the US.

And last but not least, Trump kept reminding his fellow Americans of the history of the repeated failures of the previous presidents in resolving the North Korea nuclear issue so as to highlight his unparalleled achievement of being able to pull off a summit with Kim.

It appears to me that there could have been some sort of an unspoken understanding between Trump and Kim – that they would put up a great publicity stunt together in front of global media in order to create a win-win situation for both of them.

Beijing, too, has long been aware of the potential of North Korea as a scarecrow, and has been seeking to use it as a bargaining chip against Washington.

At one point, Beijing sought to press Pyongyang into giving up its nukes in return for the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean peninsula.

However, perhaps what China has failed to foresee is that North Korea has turned out a scarecrow that could walk and talk on its own, and not as easy to manipulate as President Xi Jinping would have wanted.

In other words, from Beijing’s perspective, Pyongyang has deviated from its predicted and intended role of a scarecrow that could help China become the ultimate winner in the region.

And as North Korea is seeking closer ties with the US and is likely to see rapid economic growth in the coming days, it is getting increasingly apparent that Pyongyang would no longer be willing to do Beijing’s bidding like it was in the past.

That said, based on the past experience in international relations, perhaps it is time for China to look for a new scarecrow.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 15

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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