Day: July 5, 2017

Up creek, no paddle

The North Koreans celebrated July 4 with launch of a missile they claim (and some expert observers confirm) could be an inter-continental one. While they are still presumably some distance from being able to mount a nuclear weapon on an ICBM and deliver it to the US, President Trump had said they wouldn’t be allowed to continue to test this capability.

Trouble is, he seems to have no idea what to do about it. The US and South Korea launched a couple of missiles into the sea in response, but that is really pointless. Kim Jong-un knows full well that Seoul and Washington can obliterate Pyongyang, but he also knows that he has the capability to do likewise to Seoul. He has tens of thousands of well-hidden conventional artillery pieces within range of the South Korean capital. Even if most of them miss their targets, they will do colossal damage, mainly to civilians.

Trump’s bluff and bluster is also failing with the Chinese, who have reached an agreement with the Russians not to up the sanctions pressure on the North. Without Moscow and Beijing, American sanctions are essentially meaningless. Even the recent move against Chinese banks that finance business with North Korea won’t have much impact. The Chinese will likely move their operations to more opaque institutions. We’ll discover those and levy sanctions, leading to an interminable game of cat and mouse.

Admittedly, Trump is doing no worse than previous American administrations, which have likewise found a dearth of options. The difference is that Trump mocked “strategic patience” and promised success, repeatedly. He thus put US credibility on the line and thereby forced his own hand. He may have to “do something” for the sake of his own prestige.

What Beijing and Moscow want is a deal that would suspend at least some US and South Korean military exercises in exchange for freezing the North Korean missile program. That would be a good deal for the Washington and Seoul, since they really have little need to continue the exercises, except as a (feeble) response to Pyongyang’s provocations. It is not however clear that North Korea sees much advantage in that sort of mutual freeze, since the threat their missiles pose is a hypothetical one until they gain a real operational capability.

The US finds itself reduced to asking for a UN Security Council meeting. That is the kind of diplomatic gesture Trump would have mocked while President Obama was in office. It is nonetheless a good idea, to see if there might be some area of agreement among China, Russia, and the US.

Jaw-jaw in this case is certainly better than war-war. The US is up a creek without a paddle. Maybe someone will loan us one.

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