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The North Korean chessboard: What next for the main players?

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Over the weekend, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, claiming it had detonated a thermonuclear bomb for the first time. The regime in Pyongyang has been signaling for months its intent to unveil such a weapon, and American experts are now coming to grips with what was once an "unthinkable" scenario — that North Korea may pose a credible nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland.

On Monday, that dawning reality led Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to describe North Korea as "a global threat." Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said during an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council that the North Korean regime was "begging for war."

"We have kicked the can down the road long enough," Haley said as other council members suggested additional sanctions on Pyongyang. "There is no more road left." But here's an attempt at gauging where the path ahead may take the actors involved in this geopolitical crisis.

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said North Korea’s actions show Kim Jong Un is “begging for war," at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Sept. 4. (Video: Reuters)

The United States

The Trump administration's approach, telegraphed for weeks by key figures such as Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, is to exert "maximum pressure" to force North Korea to the negotiating table. But this position has been undercut by President Trump, who fired off a series of bellicose tweets this weekend.

Trump not only raised the prospect of a potentially catastrophic regional trade war but also criticized the new liberal government in South Korea, which hopes for more productive engagement with its northern neighbor. How this helps matters is anyone's guess.

Trump's rhetoric is useful in understanding the pronounced split within the White House between those who see the crisis primarily as an opportunity to pressure China, North Korea's only real ally, and those pursuing a more conventional, if hawkish, strategy to bring North Korea to heel.

Trump, meanwhile, is also reportedly keen on scrapping an existing free-trade deal with South Korea (more on that later in the newsletter), which may in part explain his harsh words for Seoul.

The confused messaging, which now is a running theme of the Trump presidency, somewhat obscures the fact that the United States has a narrow set of options when confronting North Korea. For all the posturing over American "fire and fury," no one is willing to countenance military action that could lead to hundreds of thousands of South Korean deaths within hours of a first strike.

U.S. officials will focus this week on extending the already tight regime of international sanctions further, possibly seeking to cut oil exports to North Korea and curb Pyongyang's ability to send cheap North Korean laborers to neighboring China and Russia.

China and Russia

It's unclear whether Moscow and Beijing would go along with such punitive measures at the Security Council, though neither country ruled out new sanctions on Monday. But both the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the United Nations reiterated that diplomacy and dialogue — not simply sanctions — were essential to calming tensions.

The spotlight is burning bright on China, which has been put in an increasingly awkward position by North Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping is preparing for a vital party congress in October that will cement his political legacy, and the drama next door is rocking the boat at the worst time.

"China has been cornered," said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing, to my colleague Emily Rauhala. "I’m afraid of what we are facing now, we are at the stage of a showdown."

American critics say Beijing could do far more to pressure Pyongyang, including cutting off economic aid. But the Chinese contend that further isolating the North Korean regime would only provoke Kim Jong Un into more destabilizing and unpredictable behavior.

And while the United States and China share the same goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, they are at odds over a range of other issues, including the nature of U.S.-South Korean security ties and ongoing military exercises conducted by the United States and its allies in waters near China.

South Korea and Japan

Of course, no one is more alarmed by North Korea's nuclear and missile tests than its U.S.-allied neighbors. For both Japan and South Korea, Pyongyang's enhanced nuclear threat raises new doubts that the United States can shield their nations from attack.

"If the Americans face a choice between San Francisco and Seoul, they will choose San Francisco," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, to the New York Times.

After the nuclear test, both countries sought reassurances from the United States and moved to beef up their own arsenals. South Korea said it would conduct a live-fire drill later this month of missiles that could potentially strike North Korean military and nuclear sites, while its defense minister floated the controversial possibility of redeploying American tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula — a move that carries real political and security risks.

As for Trump's jab about South Korean "appeasement," it didn't seem to interfere with his 40-minute phone call on Monday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in which the men pledged to "strengthen joint military capabilities" and "maximize pressure" on Pyongyang. As my colleague Anna Fifield reported, many South Koreans recognize that Trump, while a loose cannon, is still someone they must work with.

"Opinion polls show South Koreans have one of the lowest rates of regard for Trump in the world and they don’t consider him to be a reasonable person," said David Straub, a former State Department official who dealt with both Koreas, to Fifield. “In fact, they worry he’s kind of nuts, but they still want the alliance.”

North Korea

Then there's Kim and his regime. North Korea-watchers have puzzled over Pyongyang's aggressive moves in the past year, which seem to have advanced beyond securing an effective deterrent against potential attack. For North Korea's brutal leadership, a nuclear arsenal is its main avenue toward global credibility.

"After observing China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the 1960s and watching it stare down America’s 'policy of hostility and imperialism' by the early 1970s, the Kim regime seems to believe it can pull off the same trick," noted nonproliferation expert Joshua Pollack.

Whether that's possible half a century later is another matter. What Pyongyang does seem to be achieving, though, is a calculated chaos that has the potential of driving wedges between its neighbors. Trump's angry jabs at South Korea are a case in point, and perhaps only a preview of more to come.

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