What is next for North Korea, Guam, Trump, nu­clear ten­sion?

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Martha Mendoza CLOSER TO BRINK, TALKS ARE ES­SEN­TIAL Srini­vasan Si­tara­man, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, Clark Univer­sity, Worces­ter, Mass. PLAY­ING INTO KIM JONG UN’S HANDS? Tony Tal­bott, in­terim ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Univer­sity of Day­ton Hu­man Rights Cen­ter, Oh

SAN JOSE, CALIF.» Threat­en­ing lan­guage be­tween the U.S. and North Korea is flar­ing this week. Af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump vowed to re­spond with “fire and fury” if Py­ongyang con­tin­ued to threaten the U.S., the North’s mil­i­tary said it is fi­nal­iz­ing a plan to fire four midrange mis­siles to hit wa­ters near the strate­gic U.S. ter­ri­tory of Guam. Be­low, North Korea ex­perts in the U.S. dis­cuss the grav­ity of the mo­ment and where both coun­tries, and the world, could go from here:

De­spite Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s ef­forts to play down Trump’s state­ments on un­leash­ing “fire and fury” on the North, it seems Trump de­lib­er­ately or in­ad­ver­tently threat­ened nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion of North Korea. One of the con­se­quences of this war of words and the as­so­ci­ated es­ca­la­tion pos­tures is that it would be very hard for the United States and North Korea to back down af­ter hav­ing quickly pushed each other close to the brink.

De­spite this es­ca­la­tion, it is my be­lief that the pos­si­bil­ity of a nu­clear ex­change, al­though higher than nor­mal, is still be­low the thresh­old of ac­tual us­age . ... It is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial to find ways to bring North Korea to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble and en­gage it in talks and re­move the cloud of nu­clear war that is hang­ing over the world. Get­ting the North Kore­ans to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble is not some­thing that could be achieved in the short term, but (the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, Ja­pan, China and Rus­sia) and the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil must work to­wards lay­ing the ground­work to­ward this ob­jec­tive.

Both lead­ers are pri­mar­ily speaking to their do­mes­tic au­di­ences. Trump wants or needs to ap­pear strong to fit his im­age and pre­vi­ous rhetoric. Kim needs to main­tain the il­lu­sion of him be­ing the only pos­si­ble sav­ior of his coun­try and peo­ple — an is­land of virtue adrift in a sea of bru­tal en­e­mies. With China and Rus­sia agree­ing to the U.N. sanc­tions against the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of Korea (the North’s of­fi­cial name), Kim truly looks and feels alone and will in­crease his stri­dent rhetoric. En­gag­ing in this theater with him, es­ca­lat­ing the in­ten­sity and threat of our re­sponses, will be detri­men­tal and ac­tu­ally plays into Kim’s hands, re­gard­ing main­tain­ing con­trol of the regime.

There are no good mil­i­tary op­tions that wouldn’t re­sult in deaths of thousands in the first day, and even then it might not elim­i­nate DPRK ca­pa­bil­ity. The world may ul­ti­mately have to rely on mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion — that nukes self-de­ter and no one goes to nu­clear war. But that will also cre­ate great in­sta­bil­ity on a con­ven­tional and un­con­ven­tional war­fare level. Iron­i­cally, it may be Trump that es­ca­lates and causes war.

Could North Korea truly at­tack Guam? It’s likely no. No one out­side of a small num­ber of peo­ple in the DPRK can know for sure. None­the­less, that ca­pa­bil­ity is be­yond any­thing that they have demon­strated thus far. Guam is a non­cred­i­ble threat; Seoul and Ja­pan are cred­i­ble threats.

Trump’s com­ments on Twit­ter are ir­re­spon­si­ble. They do noth­ing to help the U.S. or our al­lies. It in­creases in­sta­bil­ity. Our diplo­mats need to be em­pow­ered to do their jobs.

Trump’s state­ments seem to mir­ror Kim’s lan­guage. Is he try­ing to talk to Kim in words he un­der­stands? Is this just the way Trump talks? Is Trump try­ing to be un­pre­dictable and thus change China’s cal­cu­la­tion and raise the cost for sup­port­ing Kim? It is hon­estly hard to say. But the rest of the na­tional se­cu­rity estab­lish­ment in the U.S. seems to be walk­ing Trump’s rhetoric back.

The hope is that Kim feels com­pelled to come back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. One pos­si­ble way to do that would be to make him think that the U.S. is feel­ing less con­strained to act. That, of course, car­ries big risks that he might pre­emp­tively strike. How­ever, it seems clear to me that Kim’s nu­clear pro­gram is a tool for keep­ing his regime in power and en­gag­ing in a nu­clear ex­change with the U.S. will be an ex­is­ten­tial issue for him. So I doubt Kim will be in­clined to strike first. If that is Trump’s as­sess­ment as well, he might sim­ply be at­tempt­ing to cre­ate un­cer­tainty in Kim and hope­fully get him to start ne­go­ti­at­ing.

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