The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
“We may have to go on an arduous march, a time when we will again have to eat the roots of grass.” — A March 2016 editorial in the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, preparing North Koreans for worsening conditions after tougher sanctions were imposed
Last year around this time, North Korea tapped the world on the shoulder with an underground nuclear test that drew the usual international diplomatic tut-tutting.
This year, an encore: North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un announced on New Year’s Day that his country is preparing to fire off its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Such a missile could reach much of the U.S. mainland, possibly including Chicago.
In response, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
Why not? Trump didn’t elaborate. Possible explanations include:
• North Korea is lying about its capabilities to launch an ICBM. Some international weapons experts, however, say they believe North Korea’s claim. However, many believe it will take several more years before Pyongyang has the technical skill to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
• Trump will prevail on the only country that holds leverage against the North Koreans — China — to finally do more than jawbone its neighbors into standing down. That’s probably far-fetched, though; the North Koreans haven’t paid much attention to Chinese pleadings and threats. Kim Jong Un knows that Beijing doesn’t want North Korea to collapse, sending thousands of refugees fleeing across its borders to China.
• The United Nations Security Council will surely slap new economic sanctions on North Korea in response to an ICBM test. Please. A regime that warns its people that they may be eating grass to survive (see quote above) isn’t likely to respond to further economic sanctions.
• The U.S. plans to shoot down any ICBM missile launched by North Korea, to show its resolve to stop Kim’s nuclear march. That would be satisfying but is unlikely because it could provoke a war on the Korean Peninsula. That said, we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Trump and President Barack Obama have privately agreed on an anti-missile strike if Kim tries to exploit the presidential transition with an ICBM test.
• Trump persuades Kim to stand down in a diplomatic tour de force. After all, Trump said in June that he would be fine with hosting Kim for a visit (imagine the White House goody bag for the cognac-and-caviar tastes of Kim). “What the hell is wrong with speaking?” Trump said on the campaign trail. We haven’t heard him mention it publicy again.
The North Koreans have long demanded one-on-one talks with the U.S. But they’ve also violated every agreement they’ve made with American presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Moreover, Kim views his nuclear program as his hole-card for his regime to survive. He won’t surrender it. “As long as Kim Jong Un is in power, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards,” says Thae Yong Ho, a former top North Korean diplomat who defected to the West last year. It’s not about economic incentives, Thae says. Instead, North Korea seeks to be recognized by the U.S. and the West as a nuclear power.
Even without recognition, North Korea already is a de facto nuclear power. What can Trump do? He could try to negotiate a nuclear deal to slow or freeze North Korea’s program, as the U.S. did with the (admittedly imperfect) Iran deal. But he also should know that Kim can’t be trusted any more than previous leaders who violated past deals.
Trump can also deliver a warning: If U.S. intelligence concludes that North Korea is shopping its nukes or technology to terrorists or other nations, America will strike North Korean nuclear facilities. That’s a clear line in the sand that Obama couldn’t deliver convincingly.
The U.S. strategy of waiting out Kim and hoping to coax him back to the negotiating table — a stance the Obama administration dubbed “strategic patience” — has yielded a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal. Trump needs a new approach. He can start with a single premise: Allowing North Korea to build its arsenal, to spread nuclear technology and weapons, won’t happen on his watch. How he does that is negotiable.