WASHINGTON — Everyone’s worst fears came true last week with word that North Korea has miniaturized a nuclear weapon suitable for a missile capable of reaching the United States. After 20 years of anticipating this moment, the time for a decision falls to President Donald Trump.
Taking a question from a reporter while meeting with his advisers on the opioid crisis, Trump promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea leader Kim Jong Un didn’t stop making threatening statements. This is nuclear brinkmanship waged in public between two bombastic and impetuous men. It’s making everyone nervous.
China and Russia voted with the United States to increase sanctions on North Korea in retaliation for its series of ballistic missile tests. The diplomatic win brought a ferocious response from Kim Jong Un. He vowed retaliation “thousands of times over,” and said the U.S. would “pay dearly” for taking this action. “There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean,” he said.
Spread of weapons
The cost of stopping North Korea is perilously high with any kind of military conflict likely to kill millions. But so is the cost of allowing a rogue nation to become a nuclear state. If North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are not thwarted, an arms race in Asia will commence and the spread of nuclear weapons to a dozen or more countries will be the probable outcome.
Nuclear proliferation equals nuclear war. The likelihood of these deadly weapons being used grows exponentially with each new member of the club, along with non-state actors and extremist groups gaining or grabbing access. As Trump confronts this first crisis of his young presidency, we can only hope that his advisers heed the lessons of history even as Trump seems to believe the world started with his Inauguration.
His attitude toward nuclear proliferation is casual and fatalistic. He told a CNN town meeting during last year’s campaign, “At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself,” he said. “Wouldn’t you rather, in a certain sense, have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?”
That’s the wrong question. The right question he should be asking is, “What would JFK do if he were president today?” John F. Kennedy faced an imminent nuclear attack during the Cuban missile crisis, and he figured it out. He stayed cool. He acted like a leader. He pulled on every string he had, which is what Trump must do.
Lean on China
Now’s the time for Trump to lean hard on China, to press the Chinese to exercise the influence we know they have over their rogue client state. China is North Korea’s main trading partner, but Russia has also been complicit, trading we know-not-what across their shared border.
With a gross domestic product smaller than that of El Salvador, Afghanistan, Honduras, or Nepal, where does North Korea get the money to feed its people while supporting a million-man army and carrying on a sophisticated missile and nuclear program? We need to know. We need to interrupt it.
There are no good options with North Korea, but that does not absolve the administration from making choices. With a president as untested and unschooled in history as Trump, this is the time for his top military and diplomatic advisers to guide him in the art of crisis management and convince him to simultaneously press on all fronts — economic, cyber, and finally, military. After all, this is not a situation of MAD (mutually assured destruction); it is a case of North Korea’s assured destruction, and Kim Jong Un knows it. He has overplayed his hand; we need not overplay ours.