By Oh Young-jin
Over his handling of North Korea so far, Korea has three reasons to thank U.S. President Donald Trump.
First, despite some snafu, Trump's show of force ― the most dramatic being the redirection of the USS Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula ― has obviously forced North Korea to rethink its strategy of pressing ahead with its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests.
True, Pyongyang still has a window of opportunity to conduct a sixth nuclear test or fire a long-range missile. Indeed, it did fire one that exploded seconds after liftoff.
Facing the world's strongest military, Kim Jong-un's survival instincts will no doubt start working overtime.
It is quite a reversal of positions for the North.
For more than 20 years from Clinton to Obama and from Kim Dae-jung to Park Geun-hye, South Korea and the United States have been played by the Kim dynasty. Now, the North is on the verge of becoming a nuclear weapons state, while trying to perfect an ICBM.
For Koreans, the pre-nuclear North Korea has been a nightmare. But the post-nuclear North will be even worse. The North would use its weapons of mass destruction to terrorize and, if possible, unify the South with it, a dream that has motivated the young dictator to fulfill just because his father and grandfather failed to achieve it.
Second, Trump has silenced China. Beijing is suspected of cheating on a series of the United Nations resolutions for sanctions against the North. Beijing and Pyongyang have acted as inseparably as "lips and teeth" ― without the North, China would feel vulnerable, finding itself in direct contact with the U.S.-friendly South.
Then, China shows how fair game Seoul is ― stopping the flow of its tourists, cutting off K-culture exports and its foreign minister shaming his Korean counterpart in official settings. Its mouthpieces cursed that Korea would be vaporized at the center of the battle between China and Russia on one side against the U.S. The bone of contention is Seoul's decision to deploy U.S. missile interceptors against the North's missile attacks. No matter what Seoul has done in pleading and cajoling, China has been adamant with its ultimatum ― cancel the deployment or face the wrath of China, Korea's biggest trading partner and next door neighbor.
In Seoul, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said it out loud ― telling Beijing to stop harassing Seoul for the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployment. He, the son of a Korean War veteran, showed his country's commitment to the defense of the South.
Some Chinese media outlets reported Xi had told the Americans that he was opposed to THAAD apparently only to save their leader's face.
Trump used a carrot-and-stick policy with China by offering China a pass from being designated a currency manipulator. The stick was Trump's vow to go at the North alone, if China didn't help. Aiding this is a U.S. "armada" in the Pacific.
The effect has been immediate. China scolded the North and told it to behave with Chinese media talking about the closing of the main oil pipelines to the North. Without Chinese fuel, the North is a basket case.
Third, Trump is an unconventional leader in an unconventional era, the combination of which may not come again for a long time. Trump can do what his predecessors have failed to do by applying an imaginative customized solution to the North Korean challenge.
Also one can't rule out the possibility that this could be the last time for the U.S. to exert its unilateral power to impose world order. China has been growing and is likely to learn from how it has wobbled under Trump. It's like an inevitable contest of the one on the throne and a pretender. Sooner or later, there is bound to be a changing of the guard. If it is not China, there will be others.
The Korean problem needs a closer and Trump can be one. A desired end is the North getting disarmed of its nuclear weapons and missiles and heading on the path to become a normal nation. Of course, there is no guarantee that the North can survive a peace march.
Koreans in the South are either skeptical or suspicious about a happy end to their cold-war saga.
In the vortex of the current North Korea-U.S. standoff, they feel a kaleidoscope of emotions. At the center is their frustration from the feeling of being relegated to being a bystander in the formation of their own fate. A lot of them would have déjà vu about how their country lost its independence at the turn of the 20th century or suffered even before. They fear a repetition of it.
So they suspect that the U.S. and China are cutting a secret deal. This suspicious mind is based on historical precedents.
The pity is that the wealthy South acts as if it is the only party that doesn't know it has grown itself and become a force to be reckoned with.
The time is right to stop being enslaved by history because of the risk that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and invite a repetition of an unhappy portion of it.
To solve the North Korean problem means to provide it with a new future that departs from history.
So far, Trump is presenting that chance. If Korean modesty prevents us from embracing it with open arms, at least let's root for it.
Oh Young-jin is The Korea Times' chief editorial writer. Contact email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.