Ignatius: North Korea, U.S. and China at the brink together

By David Ignatius

The North Korean nuclear threat is a “hinge” moment for the U.S. and China, and for the new international order both nations say they want.

If Washington and Beijing manage to stay together in dealing with Pyongyang, the door opens on a new era in which China will play a larger and more responsible role in global affairs, commensurate with its economic power. If the great powers can’t cooperate, the door will slam shut — possibly triggering a catastrophic military conflict on the Korean peninsula.

President Trump’s bullying style, even in dealing with trivial matters of domestic politics, obscures the extent to which he has tried to marry U.S. policy on North Korea with that of China. For the most part, he has been surprisingly successful. Beijing and Washington have mostly been aligned, as in last weekend’s unanimous U.N. Security Council vote in favor of additional sanctions against Pyongyang to punish its continued missile tests.

Washington’s diplomatic goal, although it hasn’t been stated publicly this way, is to encourage China to interpose itself between the U.S. and North Korea and organize negotiations to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. threat is that if China doesn’t help the U.S. find such a diplomatic settlement, America will pursue its own solution — by military means, if necessary.

Trump amped up the rhetoric Tuesday, telling reporters: “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

The U.S. threat may be a bluff, but with Trump, you never know. Top U.S. officials understand that a pre-emptive war against North Korea could result in horrendous loss of life and a post-conflict outcome that would be worse for all parties. But when national security adviser H.R. McMaster says that a nuclear-armed North Korea is “intolerable” to Trump, one should assume he means it — and that he is preparing a menu of military options.

Now comes the moment of nuclear brinkmanship. North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Monday, in reaction to the U.N. vote and Chinese-American calls for talks: “We will under no circumstances put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table.” Is he bluffing? Again, we don’t know.

Some diplomats saw ambiguity in the vagueness of Ri’s conditions for any talks. But many leading analysts believe that North Korea, rather than stepping away from the edge, is racing toward having an operational nuclear-missile capability that can strike the U.S, as a matter of self-protection.

Two intelligence assessments disclosed Tuesday added increased urgency to the crisis. The Defense Intelligence Agency concluded late last month that North Korea has mastered the technology for a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could sit atop a missile that could hit America, according to The Washington Post. A white paper by Japan’s defense ministry reached a similar conclusion and warned that the nuclear threat was now an imminent problem.

North Korea’s rhetoric blasts the United States. But in a deeper way, it’s China that’s being put in an intolerable position by Pyongyang. China has been flashing red lights about the North Korean program for more than a year. President Kim Jong Un’s regime responded by conducting its fifth nuclear test last September and continuing its missile tests, despite urgent Chinese warnings. Kim’s slap to Beijing even included assassinating his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was under Chinese protection.

North Korea’s defiance of the U.S. and China is rooted in its ideology of “juche,” or militant self-reliance. The official North Korean website sums up the philosophy as: “independence in politics, self-sufficiency in the economy and self-reliance in national defense” — a creed that promotes go-it-alone confrontation.

What’s at stake in this confrontation was underscored by discussions last weekend at an annual gathering of the foreign policy establishment called the Aspen Strategy Group. This year’s meeting included five Trump administration officials, as well as a collection of former top officials from previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

Among the clearest points of consensus was that the North Korea crisis provides what one participant called a “catalytic” moment. If China and the U.S. can find a common path and resolve the crisis peacefully, they will succeed in “modernizing the global order,” which was the broad topic of the Aspen discussions.

And if they fail? If Trump’s fiery rhetoric alienates Beijing rather than motivating it? If Pyongyang decides to test its doctrine of self-sufficiency with a roll of the nuclear dice? If Trump becomes the first president since John Kennedy to truly find himself at the nuclear brink? One way or another, the coming months will shape global security for many years ahead.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Randall Tharp’s month recovery coins after battling a fentanyl addiction.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Fentanyl crisis should force rethinking of approach

A continuum of care, that includes treatment in jails, is imperative, says a journalist and author.

Editorial cartoons for Thursday, Sept. 28

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Patricia Gambis, right, talks with her 4-year-old twin children, Emma, left, and Etienne in their home, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Maplewood, N.J. Gambis' husband, an FBI agent, has been working without pay during the partial United States government shutdown, which has forced the couple to take financial decisions including laying off their babysitter. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Editorial: Shutdown hits kids, families at difficult moment

The shutdown risks food aid for low-income families as child poverty doubled last year and child care aid ends.

Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, left, and Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, right, embrace after a special session to figure out how much to punish drug possession on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Olympia, Wash. Without action, Washington's drug possession law will expire July 1, leaving no penalty in state law and leaving cities free to adopt a hodgepodge of local ordinances.  (Karen Ducey/The Seattle Times via AP)
Editorial: Robinson smart choice to head Senate budget panel

A 10-year legislative veteran, the Everett senator displays a mastery of legislation and negotiation.

Migrants trying to reach the United States, set up a camp in Lajas Blancas, Darien province, Panama, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Fact check: No, migrants aren’t getting $2,200 a month from U.S.

A viral tweet by Rep. Lauren Boebert is a zombie claim that started in 2006 in Canada.

Covid response skeptics mastered critical thinking

A recent Herald editorial reflects what is off with our mainstream mindset… Continue reading

Arlington Mayor Tolbert knows value of city’s youths

As a recent Arlington High School graduate (Class of 2020) and a… Continue reading

Comment: End of pandemic child-care aid will expose huge problem

Putting even more of the costs of child care on parents will mean many employees will opt out of jobs.

Comment: No act of God, disasters a collision of human failures

The climate changes caused by greenhouse gases are compounded by poor decisions and inaction.

Most Read