Top U.S. officials have said repeatedly that America is seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis with North Korea. But President Trump's insulting comments toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to have made such a negotiated settlement more difficult.
In the chaotic government-by-Twitter atmosphere of the Trump administration, no senior leader has publicly questioned whether the president's trash talk about "Rocket Man" and his threat to "totally destroy" North Korea have undermined his own strategy. But there's growing concern that, as former U.S. diplomat and North Korea expert Joseph DeThomas wrote Monday on the 38 North blog, Trump's comments "may have closed any remaining doors" to a quick diplomatic resolution of the standoff.
Experienced Korea watchers believe that Trump's threats have deepened Kim's resistance to concessions and that the North Korean leader is unlikely to back down in the face-off with Washington. By responding personally to Trump's bluster and issuing his own counterthreats, Kim has attached his personal prestige and his family's demigod status to the confrontation.
Trump's disruptive comments have doubtless caused some head-scratching in Pyongyang, as leaders there try to discern the signal from the noise. But any benefits of Trump's unpredictability were probably erased by threats to obliterate North Korea and its leaders if they remain defiant.
Officials who appeared hopeful about diplomatic prospects just a few weeks ago now seem concerned that Kim may seek another round of escalation. One possibility is an intercontinental ballistic missile test, arcing far out over the Pacific, to demonstrate North Korea's range. North Korea could perhaps even mount a hydrogen warhead atop one of these missiles so that it exploded in the ocean, though that would risk prompt U.S. retaliation. The North Koreans could also test submarine-launched ballistic missiles to demonstrate a second-strike capability following any U.S. preemptive attack.
Conflict certainly isn't inevitable, even after Monday's claim by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho that Trump's U.N. comments meant "the United States declared war on our country." But analysts believe Ri's threats to attack planes that fly near North Korean airspace were serious. As both sides increasingly accompany their rhetoric with displays of military hardware, the risk of accident and miscalculation grows.
Korea watchers stress that for 70 years, North Korea's identity has been that of a defiant small country, armed to the teeth, that survives by not giving in to any outside threat. The regime's attitude is: "We don't mind dying, but we'll make you pay a price that you won't want to pay."
The Trump administration has hoped to use China as leverage against this meddlesome foe. But Pyongyang seems impervious to Beijing's threats, too. Even as China has joined in U.N. Security Council sanctions, North Korea has denounced what it sees as the perfidy of its neighbor.
An example of Pyongyang's indignation is an article titled "Chinese Media's Shameless and Impudent Acts Blasted," distributed Sept. 22 by North Korea's official news agency. Calling sanctions "the dirty excrement of the reactionaries of history," the article said North Koreans "really feel shame" when they see China "kowtow to the U.S." The article describes an uncorrupted North Korea proudly resisting alone: "Though small in territory and population, the people of the DPRK have such fortune . . . standing against the 'world's only superpower.' "
Hopes that Kim's inner circle may fragment as the confrontation escalates are probably misplaced. Senior North Korean military, intelligence and political officials appear convinced that if Kim's regime implodes, they go down with it. The fate of Saddam Hussein's family and associates offers a grim lesson that insiders can't easily separate from the regime.
What road map might allow the United States and North Korea to move away from the brink? Probably it would begin with a concession from Washington that eased North Korea's anxiety. One possibility would be a U.S. proposal to limit the scope of the next joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise, in 2018.
A wild card would be a dramatic gesture by Trump to "go to Korea," as Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged to do in 1952, during the height of the Korean War. For a president who loves drama, it would be hard to beat a meeting at the demilitarized zone.
The first steps away from confrontation will have to be small. Trump's rhetoric has probably torched the big bargain, for now. An initial statement to reduce tensions could be followed by other confidence-building measures, and then, eventually, by talks about de-nuclearization and reduction of U.S. forces in the region.
The humbling lesson that Trump must learn: He has blustered his way to the edge of a cliff. Now he must stop fulminating and start dealing.