North Korea is threatening military action against South Korea and the United States. Indeed, it has promised to send “nuclear thunderbolts” at the first sign of a preemptive American strike.
North Korea has made threats like this before. However, I believe President Trump has rattled Kim Jong Un, something previous administrations failed, or didn’t want, to do.
Consider the events of this week. The Trump administration has launched an air strike against a military asset of a regime backed by Russia, dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, sent the powerful USS Carl Vinson steaming towards Korea, and most importantly, seemingly turned China at least partially into a partner in the quest to rein in Kim’s regime.
China recently rejected rejected coal shipments from the Hermit Kingdom, thereby hamstringing the North Korean economy. In addition, Air China reportedly has cut back on direct flights to North Korea (blaming low ticket sales).
China’s actions caused a North Korean “think tank” to say: “Currently, with the cooperation of ‘somebody,’ the US is planning to collapse our system.” The regime’s mouthpiece called this action “such a naive and foolish delusion,” by which I think it meant “scary.” The anti-China rhetoric seems like clear evidence that the regime has been rattled.
Is it wise to rattle Kim Jong Un? Probably. We know how North Korea behaves when it feels safe — by building nuclear weapons and exporting the technology to other U.S. enemies. It’s possible that a North Korea squeezed economically by China and fearful of Donald Trump will stand down, or at least stand still, on the nuclear front. It’s also possible that, if sufficiently squeezed, the regime would collapse (to use its term), though China has its own reasons for not squeezing that hard.
But might not North Korea respond instead by carrying out its threats of military action against South Korea, U.S. assets in the North Pacific, and even our West Coast? Only if Kim Jong Un is crazy. A North Korean attack would mean the destruction of his nation and his regime.
There is speculation that Kim is, indeed, mentally unbalanced. But if that’s the case, then arguably it becomes all the more important to prevent him from developing a nuclear strike capacity against the U.S.
Thus, I think Walter Russell Mead has it right. He says:
[Trump] is also willing, in a way that his predecessors weren’t, to engage in brinkmanship with North Korea—responding to the DPRK’s volcanic eruptions of hatred and threats with firmness and warnings rather than the usual mumbling. This policy is full of risk, but it is hard to argue that at this point the United States has many alternatives, unless we are willing to live with a North Korean gun at our heads for the rest of time.
It would have been difficult to live with such a gun at our heads under Kim Jong Un’s more rational predecessors. Living with it now would be very hard to accept.
The hope seems to be that if the United States can effectively coordinate trade diplomacy with military and security diplomacy aimed at the Korean Peninsula, China will conclude that wholehearted cooperation with the United States on North Korea is its best option.
Wholehearted cooperation by China may be too much to ask. However, the China card seems to provide our best hope, and Trump’s approach strikes me as an improvement over the North Korea policy of the previous three U.S. administrations.