On the heels of yet another North Korean missile test, Vice President Pence arrived in South Korea with a firm message. He declared an end to the “era of strategic patience” with the regime in Pyongyang, echoing the established line of a White House that’s eager to show how different it is from its predecessor. The Trump administration’s recent decisions to strike Syrian government forces and drop an attention-grabbing bomb in Afghanistan were evidence that the North Koreans “would do well not to test resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Pence said.
In recent weeks, Trump has tweeted threats of unilateral action against North Korea. Tensions spiked this past weekend as Kim Jong Un’s regime held a grand military spectacle in honor of Kim’s grandfather on Saturday and conducted a botched missile test on Sunday. Pence indicated there would be no more tolerance for such tests, but Pyongyang met his tough talk by doing what it does best: issuing more threats.
“We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis,” said the country’s vice foreign minister, Han Song Ryol, to the BBC on Monday. “If the U.S. is planning a military attack against us, we will react with a nuclear pre-emptive strike by our own style and method.”
Now North Korea watchers are now waiting to see what Trump’s strategic impatience will bring.
In an interview with the New York Times, Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars described what’s unfolding as “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” It’s an alarming comparison, fueled by bellicose rhetoric on both sides and a nervy game of brinkmanship that could quickly turn volatile.
“While all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise … one parallel shines through,” the Times noted. “When national ambitions, personal ego and deadly weapons are all in the mix, the opportunities for miscalculation are many.”
Trump and his advisers have repeatedly called the “unpredictability” of their moves and policymaking a virtue. They have also consistently played up the role of American military might as a prime mover in international affairs. But there’s a reason previous administrations have taken a careful, calibrated approach on North Korea — and one anchored in regional diplomacy, not the presence of an “armada” — as Trump put it — of American warships.
“The last thing needed in the fraught situation in Northeast Asia, where military action could spiral into catastrophe, is more macho posturing,” wrote Ian Buruma in the Atlantic.
The leadership in North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles as its main ticket to survival. For years, it has asserted itself on the world stage through saber-rattling — and won real concessions from its neighbors by possessing a potential nuclear deterrent. But Pyongyang knows it’s playing a risky game: Any American-led strike on North Korea would likely prove devastating. Thus most analysts imagine that the more cornered and vulnerable Kim feels, the more ready he may be to strike.
“Kim’s strategy depends on using nuclear weapons early — before the United States can kill him or special forces can find his missile units,” wrote arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis earlier this year. “He has to go first, if he is to go at all.”
That could mean millions of deaths in South Korea and Japan, a fear that should constantly be guiding Trump’s decision-making when it comes to North Korea. But, as my colleagues report, Trump presents a new and potentially dangerous wild card, even to many South Koreans who have grown accustomed — even desensitized — to North Korean threats.
“There are members of the president’s inner circle who do indeed believe that the Trump administration is seriously contemplating a ‘first strike’ on North Korea,” wrote Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. “But if Kim Jong Un has drawn the same conclusion — he may reach for the nuclear trigger first.”
The brunt of the White House’s plan, such as it is, has been to increase pressure on China, which in theory ought to use its considerable influence over the Kim regime to bring North Korea to heel. But as my colleague Simon Denyer reports from Beijing, there are still real limits to what China can and is willing to do. Relations with both Seoul and Pyongyang are at a low ebb; North Korea snubbed a delegation of Chinese senior diplomats earlier this month.
“China may marginally increase economic pressure on North Korea by cutting down trade, tourist flows or food aid, but its primary goal is to placate Washington” rather than disarm North Korea, said Yanmei Xie, a politics and foreign policy expert at China-analysis firm Gavekal Dragonomics, to Denyer. “Beijing has reasons and means to discipline Kim, but is more concerned with ensuring the survival of his regime, thus maintaining a buffer against U.S. military presence in the South.”
Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, told The Post that if the Trump administration continues its verbal threats and further boosts its naval presence in the area, it could prompt China to “shift from suppressing North Korea to opposing the United States.” That development would neither help the United States nor necessarily do much to rein in North Korea’s nuclear threat.
“Empty threats from Washington are not just ineffectual; they play into the Korean dictator’s hands,” wrote Buruma in the Atlantic. “Whether most North Koreans really worship the Kim dynasty as much as they seem to is hard to know, since most of ‘these gestures of idolatry’ are coerced. But Korean nationalism can be very easily stirred up. One thing that holds North Koreans together is the fear, constantly stoked by the regime, of a wicked foreign attack.”
At the moment, Trump seems to be doing an excellent job stoking that fear.