Play­ground taunts will not defuse North Korea cri­sis

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Eu­gene Robin­son Email Eu­gene Robin­son at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­ Follow him on Twit­ter: @Eu­gene_Robin­son

This is what we dreaded. Some in­ter­na­tional cri­sis was bound to flare up, and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump would make it worse. Now we can only hope that the ma­ture adults sur­round­ing him are able to cool things down.

Trump prob­a­bly thought it was oh-so-clever to an­swer North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nu­clear provo­ca­tions with a taste of the dic­ta­tor’s own apoc­a­lyp­tic lan­guage, threat­en­ing “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” It sounded like a play­ground taunt, re­flect­ing the pres­i­dent’s emo­tional im­ma­tu­rity. On Thurs­day, Trump said that maybe those words weren’t “tough enough.” Soon these two nu­cle­ar­armed lead­ers may be trad­ing insults about the size of each other’s hands.

The “fire and fury” line was “im­pro­vised,” mean­ing Trump failed to warn any­one about it be­fore­hand — not Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, not De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis, not chief of staff John Kelly, not na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster, not U.N. Am­bas­sador Nikki Ha­ley. Wish these five of­fi­cials well, be­cause they stand be­tween us and un­think­able dis­as­ter.

It is pos­si­ble that “fire and fury” was, in Trump’s mind, a bit of strat­egy. Per­haps he wanted to come across as a dan­ger­ous mad­man. If so, he suc­ceeded in un­nerv­ing Amer­i­cans and our al­lies — but not, ap­par­ently, the North Kore­ans.

Ironies abound. Be­fore Trump’s in­ter­ven­tion, his ad­min­is­tra­tion was ac­tu­ally do­ing pretty well in or­ches­trat­ing a global re­sponse to North Korea’s de­vel­op­ment of in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles and nu­clear war­heads. Ha­ley man­aged to get the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to ap­prove tough new sanc­tions, which meant she had to win co­op­er­a­tion from China and Rus­sia — a real diplo­matic achieve­ment.

More­over, Trump’s bom­bast may even have oc­ca­sioned high­fives in Kim’s in­ner cir­cle. Kim has long sought di­rect talks with the United States as a way of show­ing the North Korean peo­ple his ex­alted sta­tus among world lead­ers. A back-and-forth ex­change of rhetoric fills the bill.

Deal­ing with this cri­sis will re­quire pa­tience and re­al­ism, both of which Trump to­tally lacks.

There is no quick so­lu­tion. If there were, Pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton, Ge­orge W. Bush or Barack Obama would have im­ple­mented it long ago. A U.S. mil­i­tary strike could cost mil­lions of lives in South Korea and per­haps many thousands in Ja­pan. Our na­tion, un­der Trump, would be­come an in­ter­na­tional pariah. We would have the blood of many in­no­cents on our hands.

The re­al­ity is that Kim doesn’t want to con­quer the world — or pro­voke a U.S. at­tack that could end his regime. He wants to re­main in power. He also dreams of some­day re­unit­ing the Korean Penin­sula un­der his own lead­er­ship, but that is a much longer­range goal. Right now, his im­per­a­tive is sur­vival.

By de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons and ad­vanced mis­sile tech­nol­ogy, Kim sought to en­sure that he never faces the fate of Iraqi dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein. Hav­ing gone to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to ob­tain this in­surance pol­icy, he is not likely to give it up. Ever.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment could do more to pres­sure Kim. It is true that China has the power to de­stroy the frag­ile North Korean econ­omy, but Chi­nese lead­ers are not will­ing to con­front the con­se­quences of pro­vok­ing a col­lapse of cen­tral au­thor­ity in Py­ongyang. And the Kim dynasty has shown a will­ing­ness to force the North Korean peo­ple to en­dure un­speak­able hard­ship in the pur­suit of na­tional goals.

I see no way that Kim is ever go­ing to be per­suaded or co­erced into giv­ing up his nukes. Maybe he would do so un­der im­mi­nent threat of be­ing de­posed. But in any sce­nario I can imag­ine, he has more lever­age with nu­clear weapons than with­out them. I don’t want to live in a world in which a nu­clear-tipped North Korean mis­sile can hit Guam or Hawaii or Los An­ge­les or Chicago, but we may not have a choice.

De­ter­rence does work, though. It worked through­out the Cold War. It worked dur­ing Mao’s Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, when China was at least as un­hinged as North Korea is to­day. It works be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan.

Trump once said he would be will­ing to meet with Kim. If the pres­i­dent can be kept from mak­ing fur­ther threats and the present cri­sis al­lowed to sub­side, per­haps we can even­tu­ally of­fer di­rect talks be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Py­ongyang — some­thing Kim dearly wants — with the sub­ject be­ing a ver­i­fi­able freeze on the North Korean nu­clear pro­gram. Af­ter a freeze is in place for a while, it might be pos­si­ble to ne­go­ti­ate re­duc­tions.

As I said, we need to be pa­tient and re­al­is­tic. Some­one please dis­tract the pres­i­dent with a shiny ob­ject for the next few years.

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