Editorials: Getting serious about North Korea
The entire Senate is called to the White House for a briefing about what’s at stake
President Trump has called the entire U.S. Senate to the White House Wednesday for a rare top-level briefing on what’s going on with “the crazy fat kid” in North Korea. The president will have all hands on deck and he expects 100 senators to be there. They’ll be greeted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested Tuesday that he wants to encourage the Trump administration to take a harder line with China over North Korea’s nuclear provocations, and this is just the kind of pressure a president sometimes needs in a toxic atmosphere when partisan concerns threaten to override national-security needs. This is one of those occasions.
“For years, the United States has looked at China, North Korea’s long-term patron and sole strategic ally to bring the regime to the negotiating table and achieve progress toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula,” Mr. McCain says. “But China has repeatedly refused to exercise that influence.”
Since the United States deployed the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea, the Chinese government has waged a campaign of economic retaliation that “has inflicted real damage” on South Korea, he says. “China has chosen to bully South Korea for exercising its sovereign right to defend itself from the escalating North Korean threat. The twisted reality is that China is doing all of this to stop the deployment of a missile defense system, which is only necessary because China has aided and abetted North Korea for decades. As these discussions continue, the United States should be clear that while we earnestly seek China’s cooperation on North Korea, we do not seek such cooperation at the expense of our vital interests, and we must not and will not bargain over our alliances with Japan and South Korea.”
The good news is that the new president, unlike the man he succeeded, understands that the bumpy road to Pyongyang leads through Beijing, and Mr. Trump has used precious early days of his administration, when his strength is at high tide, to make the case to President Xi Jinping that China must bring the crazy fat kid to heel. The Chinese president seems to be getting the message, and forwarded the message to Kim Jong-un in language North Korea will understand. China has cut coal exports to Pyongyang and there are hints from Beijing that it will cut off oil supplies if Kim attempts another nuclear-weapons test.
These are important first steps, but they’re only first steps. Technology is available to accomplish what the THAAD missiles, crucial as they are, can’t. These missiles can shoot down incoming missiles only at the end of their flight, when the margin of error is smallest. If the intercepting missiles miss or hit the incoming missile too close to the target — Tokyo or Okinawa or Guam now, Honolulu or San Francisco later — the result would still be too awful to contemplate.
Arthur Herman of the Hudson Institute, writing in National Review, suggests that a drone — an “unmanned aerial vehicle,” in the jargon — armed with infra-red sensors and conventional ordnance could be stationed 350 miles off the North Korean coast at 50,000 feet, capable of bringing down even a large intercontinental ballistic missile. This would give controllers on the ground almost a minute to “initiate the kill chain” and debris would drop harmlessly into the sea, or on North Korean territory.
This way, he writes, “the Trump administration could bring the world closer to a major achievement: taking away Kim Jong-un’s principal tool for threatening the region and stirring up international mayhem.” And who knows? The Donald might even get credit for it.