As expected, members of the United Nations Security Council met in emergency session on Monday to condemn North Korea’s test of what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb, its sixth and by far its most powerful ever. Then came the unexpected.
Rather than offer yet another resolution denouncing North Korea and calling for even stronger sanctions against dictator Kim Jong Un’s brutal rogue regime, Ambassador Nikki Haley attacked China, the only country capable of isolating North Korea, calling its ambassador’s proposal to the U.N. for defusing the crisis “insulting.” Then she reiterated her administration’s threats to use military force and total economic warfare against the North, both widely seen as empty threats given the grave damage either would inflict on America and our Asian allies.
As a result, key permanent members of the council displayed not a unified political front against Kim Jong Un’s relentless, seemingly unstoppable quest for a sophisticated nuclear weapons arsenal, but deep divisions over how best to defuse the escalating conflict and change North Korea’s behavior.
Chalk up a victory, however temporary, for North Korean chief nuclear narcissist Kim Jong Un.
Ambassador Haley’s short statement seemed designed to out-Trump President Trump in bellicose rhetoric and empty threats. By saying that Mr. Kim was practically “begging for war” and that “enough is enough,” she echoed Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ threat to use military force to stop Kim’s nuclear program and protect America and its allies. She also repeated Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s threat to sever trade with any country which trades with North Korea, calling for the “toughest sanctions possible.” Since more than 80 percent of its trade is with China, Ms. Haley was yet again threatening the only country capable of inflicting sufficient pain on North Korea to tempt it back to the negotiating table.Ditto the administration's plans to try to cut off all oil and other fuel supplies to Pyongyang. Without China, that is a non-starter.
Her performance left seasoned U.N. and Asia analysts perplexed or downright alarmed. Abraham Denmark, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia called the administration’s response “chaotic.” Robert Einhorn, a former senior State Department nonproliferation expert now at the Brookings Institution, called President Trump’s tweets and conflicting policy statements “an incoherent mess.”
In the administration’s defense, neither previous Republican nor Democratic administrations have figured out how to persuade North Korea to relinquish a nuclear weapons capability that many experts say Pyongyang considers vital to its survival.
Earlier administrations have resorted to almost every conceivable diplomatic and economic tactic to persuade North Korea to end or suspend its ambitious nuclear weapons program since Pyongyang tested its first atomic device in 2006. Nothing has worked for long: not U.N. resolutions, diplomatic negotiations, economic sanctions, shoring up our allies’ defensive capabilities, enhancing efforts to interdict North Korea’s trade in nuclear materials, and nuclear agreements like the so-called 1994 Agreed Framework, which Pyongyang soon violated.
But administration officials, President Trump, in particular, have made a jumble of contradictory statements about North Korea and how to handle Kim Jong Un that has worried America’s allies.
Its rhetoric grew hot several weeks ago after Pyongyang tested ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S.. In response, President Trump said that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued to threaten the U.S. and that U.S. jets headed for the region were “locked and loaded.” But Mr. Trump later said that he thought the 33-year-old dictator was beginning to “respect” him.
In an essay in the Wall Street Journal in mid-August, Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson further softened the administration’s tone. Washington, they said, did not seek either "regime change or reunification of Korea," but denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The secretaries also courted China, praising it for supporting tougher economic sanctions against North Korea and urging President Xi Jinping to do more to exercise “decisive diplomatic and economic leverage over North Korea.” Quietly, some administration officials fumed over the fact that while China supported the sanctions, trade between China and North Korea increased this year.
Senior officials, including President Trump, also talked to South Korea’s liberal new President Moon Jae-in, who said the administration had vowed not to use force without first consulting him, a claim the White House has never confirmed. But even before this weekend’s latest test, President Trump began criticizing Seoul.
Days before the test, he threatened to withdraw from the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement, a move criticized by many Asian experts, among them Gordon Chang, who argued in the Daily Beast that Washington should work to strengthen its regional alliances, not antagonize its key Asian ally, the nation facing the greatest strategic threat from Pyongyang. But as South Korean and U.S. forces engaged in joint military exercises, Mr. Trump criticized both China and South Korea in a tweet, saying that North Korea had become a “great threat and embarrassment to China,” and that President Moon’s talk of negotiating with North Korea was a form of “appeasement.”
Recently, North Korea’s Kim scoffed at President Trump’s bombast as “ego-driven tweets.” And he has moved doggedly ahead, conducting more than 80 missile tests since taking power and four of the country’s six underground nuclear tests. Despite having the world’s fourth largest army, Pyonyang seems unshakably committed to acquiring an advanced nuclear arsenal capable of targeting the United States to preserve the regime. Neither economic sanctions nor diplomatic seduction nor threats of military force alone seem likely to shake that.
Issuing empty threats, moreover, is widely seen as dangerously counter-productive. As Robert Joseph, a former National Security Council official and superhawk on North Korea, argued recently in the National Review, the preemptive use of armed force “carries a high risk of escalation and the potential loss of millions of lives.”
Roughly 20 million people live in Seoul, within range of North Korean artillery, among them, roughly 140,000 Americans, 20,500 of them U.S. soldiers. Empty, too, is the bluster about cutting off all trade with countries which trade with North Korea. U.S.-China trade accounts for roughly 4 percent of U.S. GPD. Ending it would throw America’s and the world’s economy into turmoil.
Leave bombast and bellicose showmanship to the little man who has brutalized North Korea.
President Trump needs to stop tweeting threats and let his officials cement ties with U.S. allies and the Asian allies whose support he will need to stand any chance of altering Kim Jong Un’s dangerous trajectory.