Looking for a win in North Korea
Short of all-out war, it may be impossible to take away the dictatorship’s nuclear capability.
On his way out of the White House, then-President Barack Obama warned his successor that his greatest foreign policy challenge would be posed by North Korea. President Obama knew what millions of Americans have learned since — it’s hard to see a way, short of a brutal war, to forcibly take away North Korea’s nuclear capability.
Diplomacy still has a chance, but if it fails, there are no good options left, and President Trump will have to select one.
So far, on his pivotal trip to Asia, Trump has mostly done as well as anyone in his position could do with regard to the North Korea crisis.
Trump’s critics think he has gone overboard in taunting the regime in Pyongyang. In fact, despite indulging in heated rhetoric from time to time, he has bent over backwards to open a path toward a peaceful solution.
On the campaign trail, Trump made China a central feature of his promise to fix the imbalance of power that America’s political establishment, by his account, had let get out of hand.
Comparing Beijing to a rapist, and the United States to a victim, Trump promised to punish China and reassert American dominance.
Now, on the ground in China, Trump has been conciliatory. No diplomatic push against North Korea will work without Chinese support. But Pyongyang’s intransigence means the most the U.S. can hope for might be reluctant Chinese acquiescence to the inevitability of war.
None of Japan, South Korea, nor China want to see a war break out between the U.S. and North Korea.
Americans are understandably eager to ensure that the homeland is safe from attack by the world’s most powerful totalitarian regime, but few are champing at the bit for a destructive war that would cost the lives of at least tens of thousands of American troops and perhaps many more Koreans.
Still, Trump’s establishment adversaries in Washington are increasingly convinced that if war comes, it won’t be because of Trump’s recklessness.
If North Korea were willing to acquire nuclear weapons and keep them as a mere insurance policy in defense of the status quo, war would be all but out of the question.
Analysts are also concerned, however, that the North wants to use its nukes to try to force reunification with the South — as well as help America’s other enemies gain access to weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S. could not credibly maintain its strategic position, and protect that of its friends and allies around the world, if North Korea were allowed in effect to annex the South through nuclear blackmail.
And that’s to say nothing of the cost of the global conflict Pyongyang could fuel by arming American foes in the Mideast and beyond. In sum, North Korea has more control than the U.S. over whether a war is coming.
That’s why America needs as much support or acquiescence as possible from the North’s neighbors. It’s a painful display of the limits of American power, and an especially chastening moment for President Trump.
Despite his limits as a leader and a negotiator, Trump’s biggest frustrations over the crisis would be shared by any president.
Though he should redouble his effort to speak and act with the utmost care, there is no playbook for confronting the current threat, and America needs a win.
President Obama knew what millions of Americans have learned since — it’s hard to see a way, short of a brutal war, to forcibly take away North Korea’s nuclear capability.