North Korea, on the brink

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By David Ig­natius

The North Korean nu­clear threat is a “hinge” mo­ment for the U.S. and China, and for the new in­ter­na­tional or­der both na­tions say they want.

If Wash­ing­ton and Bei­jing man­age to stay to­gether in deal­ing with Py­ongyang, the door opens on a new era in which China will play a larger and more re­spon­si­ble role in global af­fairs, com­men­su­rate with its eco­nomic power. If the great pow­ers can’t co­op­er­ate, the door will slam shut — pos­si­bly trig­ger­ing a cat­a­strophic mil­i­tary con­flict on the Korean penin­sula.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s bul­ly­ing style, even in deal­ing with triv­ial mat­ters of do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, ob­scures the ex­tent to which he has tried to marry U.S. pol­icy on North Korea with that of China. For the most part, he has been sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful. Bei­jing and Wash­ing­ton have mostly been aligned, as in last week­end’s unan­i­mous U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil vote in fa­vor of ad­di­tional sanc­tions against Py­ongyang to pun­ish its con­tin­ued mis­sile tests.

Wash­ing­ton’s diplo­matic goal, although it hasn’t been stated pub­licly this way, is to en­cour­age China to in­ter­pose it­self be­tween the U.S. and North Korea and or­ga­nize ne­go­ti­a­tions to de-nu­cle­arize the Korean Penin­sula. The U.S. threat is that if China doesn’t help the U.S. find such a diplo­matic set­tle­ment, Amer­ica will pur­sue its own so­lu­tion — by mil­i­tary means, if nec­es­sary.

Trump amped up the rhetoric Tues­day, telling re­porters: “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

The U.S. threat may be a bluff, but with Trump, you never know. Top U.S. of­fi­cials un­der­stand that a pre-emp­tive war against North Korea could re­sult in hor­ren­dous loss of life and a post-con­flict out­come that would be worse for all par­ties. But when na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. Mcmaster says that a nu­clear-armed North Korea is “in­tol­er­a­ble” to Trump, one should as­sume he means it — and that he is pre­par­ing a menu of mil­i­tary op­tions.

Now comes the mo­ment of nu­clear brinkman­ship. North Korea’s For­eign Min­is­ter Ri Yong Ho said Mon­day, in re­ac­tion to the U.N. vote and Chi­nese-amer­i­can calls for talks: “We will un­der no cir­cum­stances put the nukes and bal­lis­tic rock­ets on the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.” Is he bluff­ing? Again, we don’t know.

Some diplo­mats saw am­bi­gu­ity in the vague­ness of Ri’s con­di­tions for any talks. But many lead­ing an­a­lysts be­lieve that North Korea, rather than step­ping away from the edge, is rac­ing to­ward hav­ing an op­er­a­tional nu­clear-mis­sile ca­pa­bil­ity that can strike the U.S, as a mat­ter of self-pro­tec­tion.

Two in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ments dis­closed Tues­day added in­creased ur­gency to the cri­sis. The De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency con­cluded late last month that North Korea has mas­tered the tech­nol­ogy for a minia­tur­ized nu­clear war­head that could sit atop a mis­sile that could hit Amer­ica, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post. A white paper by Ja­pan’s de­fense min­istry reached a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion and warned that the nu­clear threat was now an im­mi­nent prob­lem.

North Korea’s rhetoric blasts the United States. But in a deeper way, it’s China that’s be­ing put in an in­tol­er­a­ble po­si­tion by Py­ongyang. China has been flash­ing red lights about the North Korean pro­gram for more than a year. Pres­i­dent Kim Jongun’s regime re­sponded by con­duct­ing its fifth nu­clear test last Septem­ber and con­tin­u­ing its mis­sile tests, de­spite ur­gent Chi­nese warn­ings. Kim’s slap to Bei­jing even in­cluded as­sas­si­nat­ing his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was un­der Chi­nese pro­tec­tion.

North Korea’s de­fi­ance of the U.S. and China is rooted in its ide­ol­ogy of “juche,” or mil­i­tant self-re­liance. The of­fi­cial North Korean web­site sums up the phi­los­o­phy as: “in­de­pen­dence in pol­i­tics, self-suf­fi­ciency in the econ­omy and self-re­liance in na­tional de­fense” — a creed that pro­motes go-it-alone con­fronta­tion.

What’s at stake in this con­fronta­tion was un­der­scored by dis­cus­sions last week­end at an an­nual gath­er­ing of the for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment called the Aspen Strat­egy Group. This year’s meet­ing in­cluded five Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, as well as a col­lec­tion of for­mer top of­fi­cials from pre­vi­ous Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions.

Among the clear­est points of con­sen­sus was that the North Korea cri­sis pro­vides what one par­tic­i­pant called a “cat­alytic” mo­ment. If China and the U.S. can find a com­mon path and re­solve the cri­sis peace­fully, they will suc­ceed in “mod­ern­iz­ing the global or­der,” which was the broad topic of the Aspen dis­cus­sions.

And if they fail? If Trump’s fiery rhetoric alien­ates Bei­jing rather than mo­ti­vat­ing it? If Py­ongyang de­cides to test its doc­trine of self-suf­fi­ciency with a roll of the nu­clear dice? If Trump be­comes the first pres­i­dent since John Kennedy to truly find him­self at the nu­clear brink? One way or an­other, the com­ing months will shape global se­cu­rity for many years ahead.

Email Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist David Ig­natius at da­vidig­natius@wash­post.com.

AFP photo/kcna via KNS

This pic­ture taken on Wed­nes­day and re­leased by North Korea’s of­fi­cial Korean Cen­tral News Agency shows a rally in Py­ongyang in sup­port of North Korea’s stance against the United States.

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