Prez Trump seems de­ter­mined to have the last in­sult

Khaleej Times - - OPINION -

The con­fronta­tion be­tween the United States and North Korea is in a more dan­ger­ous zone than at any point in decades. Each side has an­nounced tough po­si­tions, is­sued threats, and un­der­scored that its po­si­tions are non­nego­tiable. Each side is now boxed in, with lit­tle room to ma­neu­ver. How to get off this per­ilous path? The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has made a huge mis­take in ramp­ing up its rhetoric with­out any solid strat­egy to back it up. It re­mains un­clear as to why it has done this. Partly, it seems this White House wants to re­verse every Obama-era pol­icy. Partly, it is the undis­ci­plined ap­proach that char­ac­terises so many of this ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies, with top peo­ple free­lanc­ing and show­boat­ing. US Am­bas­sador Nikki Ha­ley, for ex­am­ple, ap­pears to take a hard line in or­der to out­flank Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, ef­fec­tively au­di­tion­ing for his job.

But per­haps most fun­da­men­tal is that Don­ald Trump likes to be the tough guy. Pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents re­acted with so­bri­ety to the bel­li­cose state­ments of lead­ers like Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Ze­dong. The United States was al­ways dis­ci­plined and cau­tious; it was the other guys who did the crazy talk. But Trump seems de­ter­mined to have the last in­sult.

We need to tone down the rhetoric and for­mu­late a strat­egy. North Korea has one — in­deed it has had one for decades. It has de­ter­mined that given how iso­lated and threat­ened it is, it needs a nu­clear de­ter­rent. And Py­ongyang has made as­ton­ish­ing strides in get­ting there. Nu­clear weapons are all that is keep­ing Kim Jong Un from suf­fer­ing the fate of Sad­dam Hus­sein or Muam­mar Gaddafi. The regime will not give up this in­sur­ance pol­icy. If you were in Kim’s po­si­tion, would you?

The de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion of North Korea right now is a fan­tasy. It will not hap­pen un­less the United States is will­ing to wage a war on the Korean Penin­sula. Everyone knows this, but no of­fi­cial in Wash­ing­ton is will­ing to publicly ad­mit it. So the United States has adopted a zom­bie pol­icy, one that has no chance of suc­cess but stag­gers along nonethe­less. It means that we can­not make any progress on what is in fact an achiev­able and de­sir­able goal -- to freeze the North Korean arse­nal, end fur­ther tests, and place the weapons un­der in­spec­tion.

A way out of this paral­y­sis would be to re­frame the is­sue and broaden its scope. Joshua Cooper Ramo, co-CEO of Henry Kissinger’s con­sult­ing firm, has shared a plan of his with me -- one that has been cir­cu­lat­ing among of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton -- to con­vene an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence on nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion. All ex­ist­ing nu­clear weapons states would agree not to test or ex­pand their ar­se­nals for some pe­riod of time — say, 36 months. In­spec­tors would ver­ify that th­ese lim­its are ad­hered to. All other na­tions would af­firm that they do not in­tend to ac­quire nu­clear weapons. Cru­cially, North Korea would be in­vited to sign onto this agree­ment as a nu­clear weapons state, with the idea of freez­ing progress for now and aim­ing to later de­nu­cle­arize the coun­try.

Ramo says that the ad­van­tages of this ap­proach are that it lodges the North Korean prob­lem in the broader con­text of global pro­lif­er­a­tion, giv­ing everyone an exit ramp so that pre­vi­ous non-ne­go­tiable state­ments don’t ap­ply. It cre­ates a global coali­tion that could be mar­shaled to sanc­tion North Korea if it were to re­nege or cheat on its com­mit­ments, giv­ing cover to China to truly clamp down on its ally. The plan also deals with Bei­jing’s core se­cu­rity con­cerns: pre­vent­ing the col­lapse of North Korea; and keep­ing South Korea and Ja­pan from ac­quir­ing nu­clear weapons. (Ramo, who has a deep knowl­edge of China, be­lieves that this broader ap­proach would al­low the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to change its po­si­tion.)

The specifics of such a plan could be ad­justed. Per­haps the con­fer­ence could be an ef­fort to up­date and ex­pand the Nu­clear Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty it­self, which is some­what dated. (The treaty, crafted in 1968, as­sumed a clear line be­tween peace­ful nu­clear en­ergy and weapons, but that dis­tinc­tion is much harder to de­tect th­ese days.) Per­haps it could be done as a re­gional fo­rum, em­pha­siz­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Ja­pan and South Korea so that their com­mit­ment not to ac­quire nu­clear weapons is seen as key — as is the im­plicit threat that if there were to be no agree­ment, they would in fact be free to move in that di­rec­tion.

There is no good — let alone per­fect — pol­icy for the North Korean prob­lem. But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to tone down its in­sults, get se­ri­ous and try to find some way to sta­bilise the sit­u­a­tion. Oth­er­wise we are on a road that will force Wash­ing­ton to ei­ther go to war or tac­itly ad­mit de­feat to the Lit­tle Rocket Man.

The de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion of North Korea right now is a fan­tasy. It will not hap­pen un­less the United States is will­ing to wage a war on the Korean Penin­sula

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