By Daniel DePetris
Are we headed for a war on the Korean Peninsula, one that would far more deadly and destructive than the 1950-1953 Korean War?
If you were watching the news over the past several weeks, you could easily come to that dire conclusion without much effort. The back-and-forth rhetoric between U.S. and North Korean officials has escalated to such a level that commentators are now openly speculating that the U.S. military is preparing for an operation similar to the attack on a Syrian government airfield earlier this month.
Because the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is volatile on a good day — here are three things that President Trump would be smart to keep in mind when his administration works on the North Korea file over the next few years:
1. Kim Jong-un is not your typical tyrant: It's easy to typecast the North Korea's Supreme Leader as a fat kid with the funny haircut who could order a nuclear missile attack on U.S. troops stationed in the region on a whim. Kim Jong-un, like his grandfather and father before him, is many things. He's a brutal tyrant whose uses anti-aircraft weapons to execute disloyal members of his regime. He's a paranoid individual who sees enemies around every corner and apparently doesn't even trust his own family members. And there is no question in anybody's mind that Kim runs a totalitarian police state where anybody who is even considered an enemy of the state is either executed or sent into a concentration camp.
He may do crazy things to his political opponents and his enemies, like placing a land-mine in the DMZ in order to provoke the South Koreans. But like all dictators, he's concerned first and foremost with keeping his regime in power and ensuring his place at the top of that regime. Luckily he realizes full well that doing anything as ridiculous as attacking an American ally or the U.S. homeland would be the end of his regime and the end of him and what's left of his family.
2. You can't solve North Korea without China: The North Korean nuclear weapons program is the ultimate catch-22 in international politics. Unless China is fully on board with what Washington is trying to accomplish and how they are trying to accomplish it, Pyongyang's weapons of mass destruction programs will continue to be a fact of life. And yet because Chinese officials are absolutely terrified of the North Korean regime collapsing and a U.S.-friendly South Korea unifying the Peninsula under its control, Beijing has resisted tightening the economic screws to the point where it risks anarchy in North Korean. President Xi, like the rest of the world, may look at Kim as an irrepressible troublemaker, but it’s Xi’s country that will be dealing with a humanitarian after Kim's downfall.
To Trump's credit, he appears to understand that China cannot simply be pressured into doing what we in Washington are demanding. During his interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Trump said that he told President Xi that the U.S. was willing to provide the Chinese a better deal on trade in return for their cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Those promises aren't likely to move Xi very much, if at all, but the offer does show that the new administration realizes that the Chinese need something in return for their assistance. If Trump is willing to explore a package that will be enticing enough for Beijing to run the risks of cutting off additional trade with the North — denuclearization in exchange for a neutral Korea without a significant U.S. troop presence — perhaps the contours of a deal could be sketched out.
3. War rhetoric doesn't serve anybody's interest: The language volleyed between officials in Washington and Pyongyang over the past weeks is the most intense that we've seen in years. When the Trump administration constantly reminds the North Korean regime that all options are on the table; when intelligence officials leak information to the media suggesting that a preemptive military strike on North Korea is being actively considered, and when President Trump himself ominously tells the world that "North Korea is a problem, the problem will be taken care of,” it sends a message to Kim that every preconceived notion he had about the U.S. is accurate. What Washington considers a signal of toughness and resolve, Pyongyang views as a reaffirmation that the U.S. isn't really interested in negotiation, but in the overthrow of the Democratic Peoples Republic.
Nobody is saying that the U.S. should keep its mouth shut for the purpose of keeping Kim Jong-un happy. When Pyongyang explodes a nuclear weapon underground or conducts a test of an intermediate or submarine-launched ballistic missile, the U.S. has a responsibility to condemn it and respond punitively. Stirring the hornet’s nest, however, just to prompt a reaction doesn't do any good. In fact, it complicates dragging the North Koreans to the negotiating table — a task that is already very difficult to achieve.
Before President Obama left the Oval Office, he reportedly told the then president-elect Trump that North Korea would be the biggest national security crisis he would confront during his first term. If President Trump doesn't manage North Korea deftly, it could jump from a crisis to a war in short order.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on April 26, 2017. Read more HERE.