Trump’s tough talk on Korea

Rome News-Tribune - - EDITORIALS AND OPINION - From The Bal­ti­more Sun

Amer­ica’s pos­ture to­ward North Korea has changed, Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in­sist. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, vis­it­ing South Korea, de­clared that “era of strate­gic pa­tience is over” and warned the north not to test Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­solve or the strength of the U.S. mil­i­tary forces in the re­gion.

But what does that mean? Does Trump re­ally in­tend to take pre-emp­tive ac­tion against the North Korean nu­clear weapons and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­grams? Or is his saber rat­tling — mov­ing an air­craft car­rier bat­tle group to the Korean penin­sula and point­ing to his mis­sile strikes in Syria and use of a mas­sive con­ven­tional bomb in Afghanistan — merely in­tended to frighten North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into ca­pit­u­la­tion? Ei­ther way, it’s a dan­ger­ous game, for the United States, for both Koreas, for Ja­pan and for China. This decades-long stand­off al­ready has one un­pre­dictable, ruthless and reck­less leader. It doesn’t need two.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, Trump had a sim­plis­tic view of North Korea as a client state of China that could be brought to heel at Bei­jing’s whim. Af­ter a tu­to­rial at Mar-a-Lago from Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, Pres­i­dent Trump has come to the con­clu­sion that “it’s not so easy.” In an in­ter­view with the Wall Street Jour­nal last week, he added, “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremen­dous power (over) North Korea. … But it’s not what you would think.” The next day, he tweeted “I have great con­fi­dence that China will prop­erly deal with North Korea. If they are un­able to do so, the U.S., with its al­lies, will! U.S.A.” Then on Sun­day he tweeted “Why would I call China a cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tor when they are work­ing with us on the North Korean prob­lem? We will see what hap­pens!”

If there is any con­sis­tent thread there, be­sides the pres­i­dent voic­ing what­ever pops into his head at any given mo­ment, we’re at a loss to dis­cern it. China can’t con­trol North Korea. Or it can. But we don’t need it to. Or it might if Trump stops call­ing it a cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tor, which it isn’t.

There are no good op­tions to cur­tail North Korea’s nu­clear am­bi­tions. China can bring eco­nomic pres­sure to bear on the north, but it also doesn’t want to risk a sud­den col­lapse of the Py­ongyang gov­ern­ment — and the flood of refugees that would pour across its border. We can en­gage in covert op­er­a­tions to sab­o­tage North Korea’s weapons pro­grams, and a re­cent string of fail­ures in bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests, in­clud­ing one this week­end, sug­gest we may be hav­ing some suc­cess at it. But that won’t stop the pro­grams al­to­gether. And mil­i­tary strikes threaten dis­as­ter that would make the Syr­ian civil war ap­pear a mi­nor prob­lem by com­par­i­son. North Korea’s forces are heav­ily du­gin and are ca­pa­ble of in­flict­ing mas­sive dam­age on South Korea. We can­not con­tain them with a few air strikes.

Trump prizes be­ing un­pre­dictable, but that trait is only likely to make the Kim regime more com­mit­ted to its nu­clear pro­gram. The North Korean lead­er­ship is re­port­edly fix­ated on the case of Libyan strong­man Moam­mar Gad­hafi, who gave up his nu­clear pro­gram vol­un­tar­ily only to find him­self ousted and killed a few years later in a Western-backed revo­lu­tion. Trump’s bel­liger­ence and volatil­ity only deepen North Korean para­noia and re­in­force the logic of its nu­clear am­bi­tions.

At one point, Trump sug­gested he could solve the whole prob­lem if he could sit down and have a sand­wich with Kim (an idea the of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count of the North Korean news ser­vice called the “ig­no­rant day­dream of a de­luded sim­ple­ton”). The North Korean sit­u­a­tion isn’t a run of the mill mis­un­der­stand­ing, and it isn’t an op­por­tu­nity for Trumpian deal-mak­ing. Talk­ing tough won’t strengthen the Amer­i­can po­si­tion; it will make Kim dig in deeper. The week­end came and went with­out a nu­clear test by North Korea, but we would cau­tion the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion not to read that as a val­i­da­tion of its strat­egy. Spec­u­la­tion that the regime in­tended time the test to the birth­day of Kim’s late grand­fa­ther may sim­ply have been in­cor­rect. Re­gard­less, there is lit­tle rea­son to doubt that the regime will go for­ward with an­other test soon in its quest to build a smaller and more pow­er­ful war­head. We need to be in a po­si­tion to re­spond with some­thing more than mil­i­tary threats.

There are signs that China’s lead­er­ship may be will­ing to en­gage in a range of diplo­matic strate­gies with the United States and its al­lies to con­tain the North Korean threat. We can only take ad­van­tage of that if Trump trades his bel­li­cose rhetoric for calm, steady de­ter­mi­na­tion. Kim ap­pears to be­lieve he is al­ready in a life-and-death strug­gle with the United States. The last thing we need to do is to en­cour­age him.

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