The North Korean detonation of a nuclear device with the explosive power of a hydrogen bomb would have sparked an international crisis and a head-on confrontation with the United States in any case. The fact that the president is Donald Trump, a commander in chief who lacks experience and discipline as well as domestic or international support, only makes the clash a hundred times more dangerous and scary. Were it not for the generals surrounding Trump, who are ironically seen as restraining him, the residents of Tokyo, Seoul and Los Angeles should have already been busy hoarding food and cleaning out their bomb shelters in preparation for the approaching apocalypse.
Trump has another negative trait, which is particularly annoying in times of crisis. He tends to be soft towards America’s enemies, especially if they are dishonorable dictators, and hard on America’s allies, especially if they are moderate and sensible. After Europe, Canada and Mexico, it’s South Korea’s turn now. At a time when he is supposed to be reassuring the country that stands to suffer most from an outbreak of hostilities in the Korean Peninsula, Trump, like clockwork, opted to insult and alienate South Koreans and their government. He accused them of urging “appeasement” of Pyongyang, using the word most associated with the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement. A day earlier, Trump had already displayed his tendency to shoot inside one’s own armored personnel carrier, as the Israeli army saying puts it, when he intimated that he still intends to withdraw from the free trade deal with Seoul, despite the tense situation, contrary to his advisers’ counsel and notwithstanding the widespread belief of most economists that the parties most hurt by such a move would be South Korea and the United States.
Kim Jong-Un is undoubtedly aware of Trump’s weakened stature and of his dismal standing in Washington and around the world – and this could very well be spurring him to go further and faster and to be even more reckless. He and his father weathered U.S. presidents who were more balanced and more respected than Trump and who all declined to stop North Korea’s nuclear program when it could have been done relatively painlessly. Trump is a paper tiger, Kim believes, and even if he isn’t, the world won’t back him. He may very well believe he can survive a U.S. attack and then turn the tables on the U.S. and isolate it instead.
What seems certain is that the balance of terror, which was supposed to work in Washington’s favor, is deterring the U.S. more than it is North Korea. Even though Kim is supposed to be terrified that his country will be wiped off the face of the earth, it is Washington that is wary of the heavy price its Asian allies might have to pay for any North Korean retaliation. If Kim decides to punish Seoul, it could undermine any chance that Trump will be able to keep his promises of growth and employment at home. Thus, in the game of chicken between Washington and Pyongyang, Kim seems to be winning, for now.
The problem is that time is running out. The point of no return is fast approaching, if it hasn’t passed yet. In recent months, North Korea has confounded all the expert opinions about its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. It’s clear now that it’s only a matter of time, and not too much of it, before Pyongyang’s scientists master the technology of arming a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, on the assumption they’re not there yet. When that happens, the risk for America will turn untenable. The prospect of North Korea demolishing an American city, even if it is destroyed in the process itself, is a risk that no U.S. president – including, presumably, Donald Trump – would be willing to take. If he doesn’t persuade Kim to choose another path, Trump will soon be faced with two unbearable choices: Expose the U.S. to unacceptable risk or plunge East Asia into an intolerable war.
The joker in the deck is China. After enhanced sanctions have failed to do the trick, Trump has no choice but to try to pressure Beijing with whatever means at his disposal, so that it exerts all of its considerable influence to get Pyongyang to back down. Not only is China just as terrified as North Korea' other neighbors of the outbreak of war, but Trump can go for broke and apply sanctions against Chinese banking institutions that would compel Beijing to act. On Sunday night, he hinted that he might sanction all countries that continue to trade with Pyongyang.
The problem is that Trump being Trump, he has already spoiled most of the goodwill he had thought to build with the Chinese leadership. An effort to force China to act could very well backfire. And this without mentioning Trump’s inability, both legal and mental, to get Russia to do anything at all.
The crisis with North Korea literally threatens the peace and wellbeing of the entire world. It requires judicious, sober and responsible leadership, but American voters chose Trump instead. The president picked up mixed reviews for his handling of Hurricane Harvey – his administration got the lion’s share of accolades – but he went straight from there to another tempest in the making with his possible decision to revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gives temporary reprieve to children of illegal immigrants who came to America at a young age. The move has already sparked general outrage, including among top Republicans, but it will doubtlessly please Trump’s anti-immigrant base. Unlike Trump’s generals, however, Trump’s base is isolationist. The last thing it wants to hear about is a U.S. military operation in faraway Asia. So the world might still be saved, thanks to America’s white racists.
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