Ray of hope, then hos­til­ity be­tween U.S., NKorea

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - POLITICS - BY MATTHEW PEN­NING­TON

WASHINGTON — In the first month of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, an Amer­i­can scholar qui­etly met with North Korean of­fi­cials and re­layed a mes­sage: The new ad­min­is­tra­tion in Washington ap­pre­ci­ated an ex­tended halt in the North’s nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests. It might just of­fer a ray of hope.

North Korean of­fi­cials re­sponded de­fi­antly. The nearly four-month pe­riod of quiet wasn’t a sign of con­cil­i­a­tion, they re­torted, in­sist­ing supreme leader Kim Jong Un would or­der tests when­ever he wanted. As if to ram the point home, North Korea only two days later launched a new type of medium-range mis­sile that ended Trump’s brief hon­ey­moon.

The Fe­bru­ary launch her­alded a year of es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions that have left the U.S. and North Korea closer to hos­til­i­ties than at any time since the Korean War ended in 1953. The North is now at the brink of re­al­iz­ing its decades-old goal of be­ing able to strike any­where in Amer­ica with a nu­clear weapon. And two lead­ers untested in the del­i­cate di­plo­macy of de­ter­rence have ex­changed per­sonal in­sults and warned of the other na­tion’s an­ni­hi­la­tion.

“Py­ongyang and Washington are caught in a vi­cious cy­cle of ac­tion and re­ac­tion,” Korea ex­pert Duyeon Kim wrote in the Bul­letin of Atomic Sci­en­tists. “If noth­ing hap­pens to break the cy­cle, it will con­tinue un­til one side ei­ther stands down, which is very un­likely, or, far worse, takes mil­i­tary ac­tion.”

The ex­changes at the unof­fi­cial U.S.-North Korean talks 10 months ago hadn’t been re­ported be­fore. They were re­counted to The As­so­ci­ated Press by a par­tic­i­pant who re­quested anonymity to de­scribe them. No U.S. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials took part.

Al­though North Korea at that time sig­naled in­ter­est in talks with Washington, its un­com­pro­mis­ing po­si­tion made plain the chal­lenges Trump faced as he en­tered the White House, promis­ing to sort out the North Korean “mess” he in­her­ited. It also un­der­scored how much dif­fi­culty the U.S. has ex­pe­ri­enced gaug­ing the North’s think­ing.

Be­fore his in­au­gu­ra­tion, Trump blithely tweeted about the prospect of Kim hav­ing a nu­clear-tipped mis­sile that could strike Amer­ica: — “It won’t hap­pen!” Al­most a year later, and af­ter an on­slaught of new eco­nomic sanc­tions and U.S. mil­i­tary threats, the nu­clear men­ace from Py­ongyang is far worse.

And U.S. strat­egy is mud­dled. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son re­cently of­fered un­con­di­tional talks with North Korea only to be quickly shot down by the White House, where not only Trump has talked up the pos­si­bil­ity of mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion. National se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster also has warned the po­ten­tial for war is “in­creas­ing ev­ery day.” Shortly be­fore Christ­mas, the ad­min­is­tra­tion un­veiled a new se­cu­rity strat­egy that of­fered few an­swers. It vaguely spoke of “im­prov­ing op­tions” to get the in­scrutable North to aban­don its nu­clear weapons.

By the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s own ad­mis­sion, its of­fi­cial North Korea pol­icy of “max­i­mum pres­sure and en­gage­ment” hasn’t to date in­cluded sig­nif­i­cant en­gage­ment.

“The White House and the sec­re­tary of state seem un­able to co­or­di­nate on even the most ba­sic el­e­ments of a com­mon strat­egy,” wrote Stephan Hag­gard, a North Korea ex­pert at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego.

The U.S. has scored successes in its in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on North Korea. It has won co­op­er­a­tion from the North’s tra­di­tional back­ers such as China and Rus­sia on restric­tions that have put new strains on an econ­omy Kim has promised to mod­ern­ize in his halfdecade as leader. The U.S. also says more than 20 coun­tries have cur­tailed diplo­matic ties with Py­ongyang.

But Trump this past week strongly crit­i­cized China for still al­low­ing oil sup­plies to North Korea, high­light­ing the likely lim­its on Bei­jing’s will­ing­ness to put the squeeze on its un­pre­dictable neigh­bor. So far, pres­sure hasn’t ac­com­plished the stated goal: forc­ing the North to aban­don its nu­clear weapons pro­gram or, at least, to en­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions over such a pos­si­bil­ity. Kim has re­mained fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing a nu­clear arse­nal he views as guar­an­tee­ing regime sur­vival. And his pro­gram ad­vanced leaps and bounds dur­ing 2017.

Af­ter a rash of failed mis­sile tests last year, North Korea has con­ducted more than 20 mis­sile launches since Trump came to of­fice. It also tested what it de­scribed as a hy­dro­gen bomb — an un­der­ground blast so big it reg­is­tered as a 6.3 mag­ni­tude earth­quake. Then in late Novem­ber, it test-fired a new in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­sile in the clear­est demon­stra­tion yet that all of Amer­ica was within its strik­ing range.

Trump has com­pounded the world’s sense of alarm. While he has pre­sented his own threats as proof of an Amer­ica that won’t be in­tim­i­dated, crit­ics at home and abroad have ar­gued he has el­e­vated the risk of nu­clear con­flict through his per­sonal in­sults to Kim.

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