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 email@example.com.