Trump’s dangerous no-win contest with North Korea
North Korea’s latest provocation – a weekend rocket engine test coinciding with highlevel US-China talks in Beijing – has underlined just how dangerous and unpredictable the escalating military confrontation on the Korean peninsula is becoming. But the Trump administration, far from calming matters, appears set on raising the stakes in a power contest nobody can win. The reportedly successful test of the high-thrust engine at the Tongchang-ri rocket launch station, announced yesterday, was hailed by Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s maverick dictator, as a breakthrough.
The official news agency, KCNA, said the engine would launch space satellites. Experts said it could also power long-range nuclear missiles. KCNA said: “[Kim] emphasised that the whole world will soon witness the eventful significance of today’s great victory.”
The test is another poke in the eye for the international community following a recent string of illegal North Korean missile launches in defiance of UN sanctions, and two underground nuclear tests last year.
Kim claims to be developing an intercontinental ballistic missile able to hit the western US and Europe, as well as submarine-launched missiles.
He seems convinced of US hostile intent. But the Trump administration, rather than trying to convince him Washington is not plotting invasion or seeking regime change, has upped the ante since taking office in January.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, warned Kim last month of instant defeat should he attack the US or its allies. If he used nuclear weapons, there would be an “effective and overwhelming response”, Mattis said.
The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on visits to South Korea and China that concluded yesterday, ruled out direct talks unless Kim first unilaterally disarmed. Tillerson warned Kim he could face pre-emptive military action. “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said.
Although US leaders have previously threatened Kim with force, Tillerson’s comments went a big step further by implying the US might strike first rather than retaliate after an attack. Perhaps it is inexperience – Tillerson is a career oil executive with zero diplomatic training – or perhaps foolishness, but with such statements he came perilously close to endorsing Kim’s long-standing narrative: that underdog North Korea is bullied by an aggressive superpower.
The likely effect will be to redouble Kim’s defiance, including possible escalation. Little wonder Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, felt obliged to appeal to the Trump administration to keep a cool head. Wang said the confrontation had reached a dangerous crossroads; the cold war with Pyongyang could quickly turn hot.
Tillerson’s threats, combined with Donald Trump’s weekend tweet again accusing China of ignoring the North Korea problem, makes it politically difficult for China’s president, Xi Jinping, to give the US the cooperation it wants; China says its influence over Kim is in any case greatly exaggerated.
Making matters worse, Tillerson refused to back down on the American deployment of advanced missile defences in South Korea, to which China strongly objects.
But Xi knows how to use an opponent’s strength against him. In his meeting with Tillerson yesterday he hinted cannily that increased Chinese cooperation over North Korea could be forthcoming if Trump backed off on other sensitive bilateral issues, notably the South China Sea and arms sales to Taiwan. A deal along these lines may feature at the Trump-Xi summit meeting on 6 April at Palm Beach.
“The joint interests of China and the US far outweigh the differences, and cooperation is the only correct choice for us both,” Xi said. The two countries should strengthen coordination on “hot” regional issues, respect each other’s core interests, and protect the broad stability of ties.
It is unclear what the Trump administration can do about North Korea not already tried. But the fact its top diplomat is ready to countenance “first strike” military action suggests the untried option, the use of force, may be all that’s left to Trump. By talking tough in public he has boxed himself into a corner. His only way out could be to throw the first punch.
He came perilously close to endorsing Kim’s narrative of an underdog bullied by a superpower