Trump’s dan­ger­ous no-win con­test with North Korea

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Si­mon Tis­dall

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

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