Day: March 9, 2017
While America can’t seem to get enough of issues like healthcare and Trump’s Russia connection, North Korea is getting precious few electrons. It deserves more. The hermit kingdom, as we used to call it, is now a nuclear power developing ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan if not yet the US. President Obama famously told then President-elect Trump that Pyongyang should be at the top of his to-do list.
That hasn’t happened. President Trump has demonstrated more interest in the cancellation of his erstwhile TV reality show than the launch of multiple missiles into the Sea of Japan. Except for a conversation with Japan’s Prime Minister and deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea, there has been precious little public sign of White House interest in the issue.
That might be the good news. The last thing the world needs is one of Trump’s rapid fire decisions. Josh Rogin, who is smart and well-informed about these things, says the National Security Council deputies and principals are seized with the issues. They reportedly don’t like Pyongyang’s suggestion that it could stop the missile tests if the US abandoned its military exercises with South Korea, which the North regards as hostile.
Washington will naturally look to Beijing to bring additional pressure on Pyongyang. The Chinese have, however, already cut their coal imports from North Korea as well as many exports to their ill-behaved neighbor. Beijing hesitates to go further because the last thing it wants is the North Korean regime to collapse, which could send refugees fleeing into China and precipitate reunification with a South Korea allied with the US.
There aren’t a lot of other good options out there. Pyongyang has thousands of missiles and artillery pieces already pointed at Seoul. Any belligerent US or South Korean moves could trigger a horrendous barrage. Destroying a North Korean missile on the launch pad, as Ash Carter and Bill Perry proposed more than 10 years ago, has gotten far more difficult, because Pyongyang has made its missiles mobile. The US could agree to talk with the North Koreans, something candidate Trump suggested he would want to do as president. But it is not clear what such talks could do to improve the situation. Yielding to them now would confirm in Kim Jong-un’s perspective that missile tests get attention.
Regime survival is Pyongyang’s top priority. Possession of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles is arguably the best guarantee possible that the US and South Korea will not risk war. Even converting the armistice that ended the Korean War into a peace treaty with American, North Korean, and South Korean signatures would not match that, in particular for a regime committed to extreme self-reliance.
This is not a pretty picture: a real threat to American allies in the Pacific and very few options to manage it. Americans elected Donald Trump to deal with such a conundrum. Let’s see how he does.