U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are in the midst of a war of words over nuclear weapons. But there are no better options for dealing with North Korea than patient diplomacy.
I do hope Kim Jong Un has a little maturity and common sense. That’s a thin thread to hang the lives of millions of people on, I know, but it seems we’re almost down to that.
Just a week ago we were reminded of the devastation of nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
No sane person, no responsible leader wants to use nuclear weapons. But right now, Kim and Donald Trump are trading threats, and I worry that there may not be an adult in the room.
Clark Sorensen is chair of the Korea Studies Program at the University of Washington, so after I read a bunch of analyses of the current war of words, I called him to see whether he was worried.
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“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Sorensen said, “and President Trump keeps upping the ante.” But Sorensen said he tends to be an optimist.
“I don’t think the North Koreans will send missiles to Guam because that might give President Trump the opportunity to start hostilities, and I don’t think they (the North Koreans) want that.”
Sorensen said North Korea sees the relationship with the United States as asymmetrical. “We’re big and they’re small, so they use brinkmanship” as a strategy for improving their power in the equation — pushing as far as they dare, then pulling back. Like threatening to send missiles near Guam, where the U.S. has a significant military presence.
In that context, Trump’s statement that the United States would rain down fire and fury on North Korea, “Was not news to them,” Sorensen said. “They’ve been aware we could destroy them if we wanted to.” But he said Trump’s “tone and his aggressiveness is something they haven’t seen before.”
That tone isn’t helpful, except maybe to Kim. Sorensen said that “short of actual war, it plays into his (Kim’s) hands.” The dictator can tell his people, “look they’re threatening us.” Kim’s regime has failed at everything people might expect from their government, so that “their only reason for existing is that they are resisting imperialism.”
So he doesn’t think Kim would respond to taunts by doing something that would bring a large U.S. attack down on him. “My view of him is that he is not suicidal,” Sorensen said, but if hostilities were to break out, it would be very easy to escalate and difficult to find a way out.
I’ve read analyses of the current war of words and of will between North Korea and the United States, and there seems to be agreement that just about every option the United States has is bad.
A pre-emptive strike on North Korea would guarantee retaliation that could devastate South Korea and might result in missile strikes against Tokyo and U.S. forces on Guam.
A limited strike using conventional weapons against some North Korean target would send a strong message, but Kim might mistake the message for an all-out attack and retaliate with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Even if North Korea saw it as a limited strike, there would be pay back.
The United States could try to assassinate Kim, but it would be just about impossible to get to him.
Or we could wait and watch and hope something will change, while negotiating.
The UW’s Sorensen gave Secretary of State Rex Tillerson credit for offering to talk with North Korea. Trump has also made that offer in the past, but Sorensen said he’s done other things that make it difficult for North Korea to take up that offer.
North Korea won’t make diplomacy easy, either. Sorensen said a lot of the commentary he’s seeing says the North Koreans only want nuclear weapons to preserve the regime. That’s their main goal, Sorensen said, but if they get that they’ll move the goal posts and ask for something else, maybe a reduction in U.S. troops in South Korea.
Everything is complicated by the two main actors. “We have two unknowns dealing with each other,” he said.
As long as nuclear weapons are available, the possibility exists that they will be used — that there will be a miscalculation, or that the wrong person will have a finger on the button at the wrong time.
The world needs to find its way to mutually assured nuclear disarmament. But right now, the United States really needs to act like the adult in the room.