WASHINGTON – This is what we dreaded. Some international crisis was bound to flare up, and President Donald Trump would make it worse. Now we can only hope that the mature adults surrounding him are able to cool things down.
Trump probably thought it was oh-so-clever to answer North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear provocations with a taste of the dictator’s own apocalyptic language, threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” It sounded like a playground taunt, reflecting the president’s emotional immaturity. On Thursday, Trump said that maybe those words weren’t “tough enough.” Soon these two nuclear-armed leaders may be trading insults about the size of each other’s hands.
The “fire and fury” line was “improvised,” meaning Trump failed to warn anyone about it beforehand – not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, not Defense Secretary James Mattis, not chief of staff John Kelly, not national security adviser H.R. McMaster, not U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Wish these five officials well, because they stand between us and unthinkable disaster.
It is possible that “fire and fury” was, in Trump’s mind, a bit of strategy. Perhaps he wanted to come across as a dangerous madman. If so, he succeeded in unnerving Americans and our allies – but not, apparently, the North Koreans.
Ironies abound. Before Trump’s intervention, his administration was actually doing pretty well in orchestrating a global response to North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Haley managed to get the U.N. Security Council to approve tough new sanctions, which meant she had to win cooperation from China and Russia – a real diplomatic achievement.
Moreover, Trump’s bombast may even have occasioned high-fives in Kim’s inner circle. Kim has long sought direct talks with the United States as a way of showing the North Korean people his exalted status among world leaders. A back-and-forth exchange of rhetoric fills the bill.
Dealing with this crisis will require patience and realism, both of which Trump totally lacks.
There is no quick solution. If there were, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama would have implemented it long ago. A U.S. military strike could cost millions of lives in South Korea and perhaps many thousands in Japan. Our nation, under Trump, would become an international pariah. We would have the blood of many innocents on our hands.
The reality is that Kim doesn’t want to conquer the world – or provoke a U.S. attack that could end his regime. He wants to remain in power. He also dreams of someday reuniting the Korean Peninsula under his own leadership, but that is a much longer-range goal. Right now, his imperative is survival.
By developing nuclear weapons and advanced missile technology, Kim sought to ensure that he never faces the fate of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Having gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain this insurance policy, he is not likely to give it up. Ever.
The Trump administration believes the Chinese government could do more to pressure Kim. It is true that China has the power to destroy the fragile North Korean economy, but Chinese leaders are not willing to confront the consequences of provoking a collapse of central authority in Pyongyang. And the Kim dynasty has shown a willingness to force the North Korean people to endure unspeakable hardship in the pursuit of national goals.
I see no way that Kim is ever going to be persuaded or coerced into giving up his nukes. Maybe he would do so under imminent threat of being deposed. But in any scenario I can imagine, he has more leverage with nuclear weapons than without them. I don’t want to live in a world in which a nuclear-tipped North Korean missile can hit Guam or Hawaii or Los Angeles or Chicago, but we may not have a choice.
Deterrence does work, though. It worked throughout the Cold War. It worked during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when China was at least as unhinged as North Korea is today. It works between India and Pakistan.
Trump once said he would be willing to meet with Kim. If the president can be kept from making further threats and the present crisis allowed to subside, perhaps we can eventually offer direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang – something Kim dearly wants – with the subject being a verifiable freeze on the North Korean nuclear program. After a freeze is in place for a while, it might be possible to negotiate reductions.
As I said, we need to be patient and realistic. Someone please distract the president with a shiny object for the next few years.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.