Trump could face a Cuban missile crisis — with North Korea
© Getty Images

By recently emphasizing the importance of the American alliance with Japan and reaffirming the "One China" policy, President Trump finally has acknowledged the real world. Now would be a good time for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to give the president another dose of reality.

Here's what they might say:

"Mr. President, North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile program are by far the biggest threats that you face. Period. ISIS, Muslim immigrants, and U.S. factories in Mexico are pipsqueak menaces compared to this one. If you don't reach a resolution based on the model offered by the Iran-U.S. nuclear agreement, then sooner or later, you are going to have a trans-Pacific Cuban Missile Crisis on your hands. And, to deal effectively with this threat, you are going to have to focus our bilateral relationship with China on North Korea and not on the trade deficit."

Trump may not want to hear that, because he doesn't like the Iran nuclear deal and he pledged during the campaign to end the U.S.-Sino trade deficit But the Iran nuclear deal, as a template for resolving the North Korean nuclear threat, should look awfully good to anyone responsible for the security of the United States.

That being said, it won't be an easy deal to replicate with North Korea. Iran's economy depended on access to the world oil markets and financial system. The widely supported Iran sanctions inflicted enough pain on Iran to produce an agreement that, while far from perfect, froze, if not rolled back, Iran's nuclear development programs before it developed a nuclear bomb.

North Korea already has nuclear bombs and it has already been largely cut off from world markets. North Korea depends heavily on China for its energy requirements, consumer goods and food, which makes China crucial to any sanctions regime. China, fearful that harsh sanctions will cause the collapse of North Korea and flood China with refugees, has been a less-than-fully-committed participant in U.N. sanctions.

For that reason, a task force headed by former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and retired Adm. and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen recently recommended that "a transformed China policy toward North Korea should be the central objective of U.S. policy toward maritime Asia and of the U.S. China relationship."

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed it should. Last March, after North Korea's fourth nuclear test, the U.N. adopted Resolution 2270, which forbid member states from buying North Korean coal and other minerals. China annually imported more than $1 billion of coal from North Korea and, theoretically, Resolution 2270 should have ended those imports.

 

But China continued importing North Korean coal under an exception that allowed imports if they were "exclusively for livelihood purposes."

Six months after the adoption of Resolution 2270, an undeterred North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test. In late November, the U.N. adopted Resolution 2321, which imposed a binding cap on coal imports that, if fully implemented, would reduce North Korea's annual coal sales by $500 million, which represents nearly 20 percent of overall North Korean exports.

North Korea, evidently counting on continued Chinese patronage, acknowledged Resolution 2321 by announcing plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missile this year.

Sanctions will have to be exceptionally painful to change the behavior of the North Korean government, which already inflicts considerable pain on its own people. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-unKim Jong UnNorth Korea issues warning over US-South Korea drills Trump says he'll meet with dictators if it helps the US South Korea: US pursuing nuclear talks with North Korea 'very actively' MORE, runs a family gulag business that, as a U.N. inquiry concluded, commits human rights abuses against its own citizens on an scale unprecedented in today's world.

If the United States can't persuade China to make sanctions work, then the Trump administration could have its own Cuban Missile Crisis: a small, isolated and erratic totalitarian regime with nuclear weapons and the means to detonate them over continental American cities.

Actually, North Korea could be scarier, because the Soviet Union was actually in control of the Cuban missiles. If North Korea develops nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, Kim Jong-un, hardly a paragon of prudence and caution, will be able to launch them whenever he feels like it.

In formulating its China agenda, President Trump has to prioritize because he only has so much leverage with China. A trade deficit can't kill millions of Americans, but North Korean nuclear weapons could do just that.

Gregory J. Wallance is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. He is currently a lawyer in New York and a writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.