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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

An Incoherent Strategy on North Korea - The New York Times





"The North Korean nuclear threat is worsening by the day. Tougher economic sanctions have not accomplished much, if anything. Nor has President Trump’s bellicosity. Sunday’s nuclear test was the North’s most powerful blast in the 11 years it has been detonating nuclear weapons. There are signs of another test soon.



Mr. Trump’s approach has so far consisted of sanctions, pressure on China — North Korea’s chief ally — and taunts against the government in Pyongyang. These messages have not only produced zero positive results but they have also sowed confusion about his intentions. The president and his team seem unable or unwilling to put together a realistic and coherent strategy that goes beyond pressure tactics and harsh rhetoric to include a serious effort to engage the North Koreans.



There have been some inexplicable errors along the way. The latest was to pick a fight with South Korea, an ally whose cooperation is vital to resolving the North Korea crisis. At a moment when South Korea needs to be able to trust America’s commitments, Mr. Trump has unwisely hinted at abrogating an important bilateral trade deal, thus potentially ceding more economic ground to China, and accused its new president, Moon Jae-in, of “appeasement” toward North Korea. The South Koreans are so upset, there is talk among some of developing their own nuclear weapons, which would compound the present insanity.



Containing the North is not a simple task. President Bill Clinton worked out a deal that froze the North’s plutonium program for eight years, only to see the agreement collapse under George W. Bush. The North’s nuclear program is now far more advanced, making getting rid of it, or even containing it, a lot harder.



North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is certainly playing a dangerous game; Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, warned Monday that Mr. Kim is “begging for war.” But unless he is completely deranged he must know that war with the United States would be suicide. He seems to regard nuclear weapons as his only guarantee of survival in the face of American hostility.



He has reason to worry: Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, gave up his nascent nuclear program in 2003 in return for promises of economic integration with the West. But when rebels rose up against him, he was bombed by the United States and its allies, then executed by rebels.



Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have insisted that the United States is not aiming for regime change. But it could be doing considerably more to lower the temperature and lead the way to a more peaceful solution. On Sunday, Mr. Mattis seemed intent on doing just the opposite, promising a “massive military response” in return for “any threat” — not just an attack but the threat of an attack — against the United States; its territories, like Guam; or its allies. And while Mr. Mattis and Mr. Tillerson have both hinted at dialogue with the North, Mr. Trump tweeted that “talking is not the answer!”



Ms. Haley pressed the Security Council this week to impose an oil ban on North Korea. That’s a likely nonstarter, since it would mostly affect China, which is the North’s primary oil supplier and has long resisted such a ban because it fears it could set off a collapse of the Kim regime, a flood of refugees into China and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under South Korea. Many experts also doubt the usefulness of sanctions as a tool to force the North to abandon its nuclear weapons, which Pyongyang sees as the only real leverage it has on the global stage.



Ms. Haley’s boss seems no less enamored of the China card, threatening to end trade with China if it does not curtail trade with the North — a completely empty threat given the powerful economic ties between China and the United States and China’s pivotal role in the global economy. Mr. Trump would be better advised to work with China on a diplomatic initiative that could include the threat of tougher sanctions but would offer the North a deal in which Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for some American concessions, like a reduction in military exercises.



It is not at all clear that Mr. Kim is interested in talking. But Mr. Trump needs to test the possibility before design or miscalculation leads to war."



An Incoherent Strategy on North Korea - The New York Times

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