The Washington Post reports that President Trump’s statements to the U.N. about North Korea unsettled China and Russia. Trump said that “the United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
China, through a state controlled newspaper, complained that Trump’s threat will “likely worsen the already volatile situation.” It called Trump’s posture an obstacle to “other countries’ efforts to persuade the two antagonists to talk.”
Russia moaned that “any military conflict means the deaths of civilians.” Russia should know, given the huge number of civilian deaths it has helped inflict in Syria.
If Trump’s speech truly unsettled China, that’s a good thing. If there is a way to end or reduce the menace posed by North Korea, it isn’t by “persuading the two sides [North Korea and the U.S.] to talk.” Rather, it’s through Chinese pressure on North Korea or, better yet, Chinese imposed regime change.
An “unsettled” China is more likely to bring such pressure or impose such change than a China that can rely on the continuation of the status quo.
My sense, though, is that we cannot expect China to help with North Korea under any circumstances except possibly (1) the prospect of Japan and/or South Korea developing nuclear weapons or (2) the conviction that Kim Jong Un is crazy. The status quo is agreeable enough to China. It keeps the U.S. off balance in the region and avoids the collapse of a more or less friendly regime, the resulting influx of refugees to China, and the reunification of the Korean peninsula on unfriendly terms.
I doubt that Kim Jong Un is crazy or that the Chinese view him as such. All of his moves that we know about have been rational and, indeed, have promoted his interests which are (1) staying in power and (2) confronting a hostile world from a position of strength.
If anything, he seems more rationale than his predecessors. North Korea’s nuclear program has made great advances under his leadership. Some attribute this to the fact that, unlike his father, he tolerates failure by his scientists. He thus enables his scientists to take risks. This, in turn, produces rewards in the form of a nuclear program that’s ahead of schedule.
If Kim Jong Un is rationale, he’s unlikely to start a war. It doesn’t hurt, though, for President Trump to remind him of the consequences of starting one and, in so doing, perhaps give China an incentive to help us out.
Though the deterrence model seems applicable to North Korea, we cannot be certain that it won’t launch nukes against the U.S. or its allies. We can be pretty certain that diplomacy won’t work and that the cost of a preemptive strike would be too high given the likelihood that Kim Jong Un can be deterred.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us, I think, with two things we should be focusing on: (1) working feverishly on missile defense, (2) assisting Japan and South Korea militarily, especially with a nuclear program if that’s the direction in which they want to go.