California Forum

The faceoff on the Korean Peninsula

Tribune News Service

Just exactly what is up with the commander in chief of the most powerful military on Earth, bigger than the next seven countries combined?

Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s 33-year-old leader, is going to take considerably more skill to manage than President Donald Trump has shown so far.

Trump was famously brought up short after a tutorial from Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-A-Lago on April 10, after which, according to an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the president said: “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”

It seems utterly astonishing that Trump was so unprepared that Xi could turn him upside down in 10 minutes. Then it turns out that he was threatening the north with a aircraft carrier battle group headed by the USS Carl Vinson, which was actually on maneuvers in the Indian Ocean when the commander in chief thought it was priming its jets just offshore from Korea. The battle group is now humping itself toward Korea, presumably on the president’s instructions. This seems to be a president who believes he can wing it through any situation without learning anything about it first.

And in Kim Jong-un, he has an extraordinarily difficult case on his hands. One almost looks back with nostalgia for his father the Dear Leader, as Kim Jong-Il was known, despite his adventurism in seeking to develop nuclear weapons and his many provocations of South Korea. With Kim Jong-un, one senses we’re in a new ball game. This is a man who had his own uncle dragged from a public meeting and shot, who engineered the public murder of his half-brother in Kuala Lumpur and who seems to have adopted a policy of murdering anyone who might possibly challenge him.

On the international stage, in recent days Kim has delivered up a massive parade of ICBMs, goose-stepping soldiers and various other pieces of ordnance with which he has threatened to immerse the U.S. and South Korea in a sea of fire, then sought to launch a missile that theoretically could hit the United States, which promptly failed, fortunately. Thus Kim and Trump appear to be screwing up while seeking to supplement their testosterone levels.

Vice President Mike Pence appeared at the demilitarized zone between the North and South Korea on April 17, saying that China must do more to rein in the north, using the exact same words, as CNN noted, that Vice President Dick Cheney had used at the same spot 17 years ago, and looking like he was wearing the same jacket.

The problem is that despite the wishes of the president and the vice president and a string of presidents and vice presidents before them, China has been trying for a long time to rein in Kim without collapsing his country, going back to 2015 when China explicitly – and vainly – warned the North Korean leader against further nuclear tests and declining to provide prior warning of what Kim called a “mini-hydrogen bomb.”

China presumably is about as frustrated as the United States, warning the U.S. and North Korea on April 14 that tensions could spin out of control “with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering.”

To Trump’s now-discarded belief that China could simply step on Pyongyang, on Feb. 19 Beijing suspended all North Korean coal imports, which account for 30 to 40 percent of North Korea’s exports, until the end of 2017 as part of its efforts to implement U.N. sanctions to rein in Kim’s nuclear ambitions, although it has allowed some coal to cross the border.

Kim, like his father and grandfather, is not insane and he knows there are no good options for the west or for China. He has 300 ballistic missiles pointed at Seoul, 35 miles from the demilitarized zone, and thousands of artillery pieces. His nuclear facilities are so dispersed and hidden underground that they can’t be destroyed easily. He is a carefully calculating leader whose ambition is permanent stability for his poverty-stricken regime. But he seems willing to be more confrontational than either his confrontational father or even his confrontational grandfather, who invaded the south in 1950.

Nobody really has any answers on how to slow Kim’s more dangerous proclivities. But Trump, with his 10-minute briefing from Xi, doesn’t seem to have the answers either. In fact, he doesn’t seem capable of asking the right questions. The best hope is that Kim’s missiles continue to explode on the pad.

John Berthelsen recently retired as editor of the Hong Kong-based Asia Sentinel, a regional news site covering 23 countries across Asia. He now divides his time between Sacramento and Asia, and can be contacted at jberthelsen@