SOME OBSERVERS are arguing that we are finally seeing how President Trump behaves in a real global crisis, as opposed to a mess created by his own White House. That’s not entirely true. It is Mr. Trump who has decided to bring the tension with North Korea to a boil at this moment, and then keep turning up the flame.
That’s not to deny the real and vexing challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. Kim Jong Un, third-generation scion of one of the world’s cruelest regimes, is not well known or understood. His rhetoric toward South Korea, Japan and the United States is implacably hostile. His military’s steady advances in missile and warhead technology, year after year, are alarming.
The Obama administration’s response to these advances was to do — well, not much of anything, under the euphemism of “strategic patience.” No one can claim this non-policy was a success. But Mr. Trump’s policy of ever-escalating threats and boasts, descending to Mr. Kim’s level, raises the risk of dangerous miscalculation, which is then exacerbated by mixed messages from his administration.
What might work better? The United States enjoys vast military superiority over North Korea, and the Clinton administration seriously considered a preemptive strike two decades ago. But North Korea’s arsenal today is more extensive, dispersed and hidden. And the chief drawback to military action then remains true: Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea could quickly unleash retaliatory strikes that could kill millions of people in Seoul and beyond. War with North Korea would be a horror.
The most merciful option for North Korea’s 25 million people would be the end of the hereditary Kim regime, which keeps its population in what is essentially one large prison camp. A U.N. report three years ago found “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” In North Korea’s gulag, the report found, “the inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide.” Hundreds of thousands have died as a result. The diversion of massive resources to nuclear and other military programs, given most North Koreans’ poverty, is just one indication of misrule.
Unfortunately, outside nations don’t know how to loosen the grip of a tyrant such as Mr. Kim. For years, U.S. officials have hoped that China, upon which North Korea’s economy depends, would help do so. But the Chinese communist regime, while at times annoyed by North Korea, fears the chaos of regime collapse, or the strengthening of a unified Korea, more than a nuclear North Korea, and so U.S. officials invariably end up disappointed.
That leaves two options. One is to live with a nuclear North Korea, as we have long lived with a nuclear China, hoping to deter its use of nuclear weapons by assuring Mr. Kim that his regime’s destruction would immediately ensue. The other is to assemble a coalition of nations to impose economic sanctions sufficiently punitive and targeted at the regime that Mr. Kim decides he would be better off making a deal.
Our view remains that it is worth trying the latter before accepting the former. At times, as when it engineered a ratcheting up of U.N. Security Council sanctions not long ago, the Trump administration has seemed to share that view. An optimist might posit that Mr. Trump’s bombast could persuade China, Russia and others to join in a sanctions regime because the alternative is so frightening. But to be successful, such a strategy also would require patience, diplomacy, coherence and quiet strength. Just to list those qualities is to acknowledge how unlikely success seems at this moment.
Read more on this topic: