opinion

APOCALYPSE NOW?

War With North Korea Starts to Look Inevitable

Pyongyang’s and Washington’s miscalculation and misconception could lead to the worst outcomes.

“We have pretty much exhausted all the things that we could do at the Security Council at this point,” said Nikki Haley on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, referring to North Korea. “We wanted to be responsible and go through all diplomatic means to get their attention first,” the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said. “If that doesn’t work, General Mattis [Defense Secretary James Mattis] will take care of it.”

The comments, no off-the-cuff remarks, mirrored her words at a White House press briefing Friday, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, standing next to Haley at that briefing, was even more explicit. “I think we ought to make clear what’s different about this approach is, is that we’re out of time,” he noted, referring to sanctions. “As Ambassador Haley said before, we’ve been kicking the can down the road, and we’re out of road.”

When senior Trump administration officials talk about the end of diplomacy they raise the prospect of war. But have all measures short of war been exhausted?

CNN’s Barbara Starr reported Saturday, “North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test has renewed discussion at the highest levels of the Trump administration about how military force could be used to stop [North Korean Leader] Kim Jong Un’s development of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”

The war talk is the result of exasperation by American officials who see that their actions so far have not convinced Kim, the North Korean supremo, to slow down the testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Take Haley’s CNN comment. Even as President Donald Trump, a U.N. skeptic, prepares to address the United Nations General Assembly, many Americans, viewing the nine ineffective sets of sanctions on North Korea since 2006, say the Security Council itself is broken.

But the Security Council is not “broken.” It was never designed to work in an era of disagreement among the five veto-wielding permanent members.

What is not working is the United States. Unfortunately, from administration to administration, American leaders have failed to use all the elements of American power. If China and Russia use their vetoes to frustrate efforts to disarm North Korea—and they do—it is because the United States has not been willing to coerce them into acting responsibly.

With regard to Moscow, recent American policymakers have been more worried about a weak Russia than a strong one. Therefore, they have opted for mild sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s dangerous behavior. Ronald Reagan, at a time when the U.S. was far weaker than it is today and the Soviet Union was far stronger than Russia is now, used American economic might to end the Cold War. Putin today is able to bedevil the U.S. at the Security Council only because Americans are afraid of what happens if they move to take him down.

At the same time, the U.S. has not stopped the People’s Republic of China. Washington has allowed Chinese banks, large and small, to launder money for the North Koreans for decades. Americans reportedly have permitted Chinese leaders to help Pyongyang transfer missiles to the Iranians. The White House did nothing when enterprises connected to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army sold mobile launchers for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. has not asked the Chinese, at least in public, how North Korea’s most advanced missiles appear to be derived from China’s Jl-1. And Washington acted as if it did not matter when Chinese businesses allegedly sold uranium hexafluoride, components, and equipment for the Kim regime’s nuclear-weapons program.

No wonder the Chinese feel free to support their North Korean allies. U.S. policymakers, they can see, have been feckless. It is one thing for, say, Liechtenstein to fail to convince Beijing to do the right thing. It is quite another for the United States of America to fail to do so. American policymakers have simply failed to coerce Beijing, failed to leave it no choice but to join in the effort to disarm the Kims.

What can the United States do to China? It can declare its largest banks “primary money-laundering concerns” under Section 311 of the Patriot Act, thereby denying them the ability to transact business in the world’s dominant currency. That would be essentially imposing a death sentence on the Chinese banking system and possibly China’s economy, perhaps the Communist Party itself.

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Trump can also remind China’s leaders that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in the middle of last month formally initiated, pursuant to Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, an investigation into Chinese intellectual-property theft. A finding of such theft—virtually assured—can lead to the imposition of high across-the-board tariffs on Chinese goods.

And this month, the People’s Bank of China, the central bank, appears to have driven the renminbi lower, an indication central technocrats are once again “manipulating” their currency as that is defined by U.S. law. That gives Trump another point of leverage.

The Chinese economy, debt-fueled for years, is particularly vulnerable, especially in the run-up to the historic 19th Communist Party Congress, which begins Oct. 18. General Secretary Xi Jinping, who seeks to grab unprecedented power, cannot afford to see a major disruption of relations with the United States at this sensitive time.

The Trump administration, with the series of actions it took in the last week of June, signaled it would move against China for its support for North Korea. For instance, the Treasury Department sawed off Bank of Dandong, a small Chinese financial institution, from the global economy due to its persistent money-laundering. The Chinese, unfortunately, have continued their support for the Norks at the Security Council.  

So what should the United States do? It could just give up efforts to disarm Pyongyang, as James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, suggested in widely reported comments to CNN last month. There is an air of defeatism in American policy circles these days.

The assumption among Clapper and others is that the U.S. can deter the North Koreans indefinitely. Perhaps Washington can do that and, at the same time, stop their sale of nuclear-weapons technology to Iran and make sure they do not begin merchandising thermonuclear devices to established weapons customers, some of them terrorist groups.

But perhaps deterrence is not possible. Kim Jong Un, who surely knows what Clapper and others are saying, is obviously defiant these days. And the core goal of the Kim regime—the basis of its legitimacy—is taking over the other Korea, the one governed from Seoul.

Kim, once confident about his nukes and the means to deliver them, will almost surely attempt to use the threat of war to break America’s 64-year-old mutual-defense treaty with South Korea and get America’s 28,500 service personnel off the peninsula. Once he accomplishes that, he surely thinks he can intimidate the South into submission.

Kim has recently been talking about “final victory,” a reference to taking over the South. An overconfident despot could miscalculate and begin a chain of events spiraling into war.

Although Americans are confident in their “overwhelming” capabilities, as Trump’s comments at Joint Base Andrews on Friday indicate, the North Koreans probably do not view it that way. They have long memories and they know they grabbed the Pueblo, an unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance vessel, from international waters in 1968 and held the crew for almost a year, killing one sailor and even getting an apology from the Johnson administration. They no doubt recall they killed 31 Americans when, a year later, they shot down a Navy EC-121. In 1976, they hacked to death two U.S. Army officers in the Demilitarized Zone. In no case, did North Korea pay a price. So Americans do not look especially intimidating to the Kim family.

And although many Americans call Kim “irrational,” would it be crazy for him to think, now, that Washington will not stop him?

War, through miscalculation and misconception, is beginning to look probable, if not inevitable.