OPINION | Kim Jong Un won't nuke America, it's suicide for North Korea
© KCNA via Getty Images

We have by now gotten used to President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE stepping on his own message with errant remarks and petulant Twitter posts, but it doesn’t usually lead to what Pyongyang called “the brink of nuclear war.” This month, the Trump administration won a victory in the United Nations Security Council by orchestrating tough, unanimously approved sanctions against the North Korean regime for its recent burst of missile tests.

The sanctions, if enforced, would reduce the country’s annual foreign revenues by $1 billion, or about one-third of the total. The resolution was supported by the regime’s only stalwart backer, China, about which the president has complained that they are not doing enough to rein in their obstreperous ally. By the end of the week, however, the leaders of the United States and North Korea, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, were ranting at each other across the playground that they were going to rain down retribution if the other side did not cease and desist with threatening noises and actions.

“Fire and fury” had seemingly removed diplomatic oxygen. The president undercut his U.N. ambassador — Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyCan Carl DeMaio save the California GOP? Treasury: US deficit tops trillion in 11 months South Carolina GOP appears to violate own rules in canceling primary for Trump MORE, who had cut the original “deal” — as well as U.S. credibility as a guarantor of world order. At this point, and in contrast with the administration’s bombastic rhetoric, rapid action by the U.N. could pull us back from the precipice. Trump has consistently downplayed multilateralism, but only coordinated and committed international action can solve what is far more than a U.S. problem. 

The Trump administration has famously proclaimed its aim of “deconstructing the administrative state,” and in March proposed a nearly 30 percent cut in the State Department’s budget. U.S. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo sees status grow with Bolton exit Trump blasts 'Mr. Tough Guy' Bolton: 'He made some very big mistakes' Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network MORE apparently views his tenure at the agency mainly as an opportunity for bureaucratic streamlining rather than for conducting foreign policy. All of this seems to add up to a government that fails to appreciate the value of negotiation as opposed to naked force with armageddon-like proportions.


The screaming match between Kim and Trump is largely meant for consumption by their domestic audiences. Kim wants to convince his captive people that their “dear leader” is doing the right thing by spending so extravagantly on guns rather than butter. Meanwhile, Trump seeks to maintain his nationalist base, which is showing signs of eroding. Yet huge populations are at risk of a miscalculation resulting from the war of words. Tillerson assured Americans that there is no imminent threat of conflict, While U.S. Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump needs a national security adviser who 'speaks softly' US could deploy 150 troops to Syria: report Trump blasts 'Mr. Tough Guy' Bolton: 'He made some very big mistakes' MORE, no stranger to miscalculations and war’s follies, has also been another adult in the room.

The upcoming but long planned joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises will add to the theater, but what is the alternative to negotiations? An attack on the United States by the North Koreans would be suicidal, as Mattis has reminded them. Kim Jong Un is a shrewd calculator and not the lunatic often portrayed. He understands these realities, and that his only real basis for regime survival is nuclear weapons. Beijing tolerates Kim’s tiresome antics because they do not want a unified Korea allied with the United States on their border or a massive influx of refugees.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that Kim will stop his efforts to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and to develop missiles than can credibly threaten the U.S. mainland. Kim will negotiate, but only on the assumption that he will maintain whatever nuclear capability he can obtain before the negotiations take place. Ongoing efforts at the U.N. hinted that at least some in this administration, chaotic though it has been, understand the importance of diplomacy as well as impromptu saber-rattling via toxic tweets. The U.N. can play a significant role because since January, Washington has increasingly squandered its traditional position as “honest broker.”

President Trump is not seen as trustworthy, or indeed as rational, by many world leaders. We are witnessing the terrifying spectacle of a nuclear-armed confrontation between two leaders who may not be prepared to put the interests of humanity before their own narrowly conceived aims. The entire world has a stake in avoiding a confrontation that, if a miscalculation occurs, could engulf the Korean peninsula, Japan, China and the United States. A preemptive strike by the Trump administration would be regarded as illegal and have no legitimacy beyond Trump’s base.

International law and diplomacy are essential. The U.N. Security Council should tighten and enforce sanctions, via a blockade if necessary, and provide the space to negotiate the reality of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. With serious, internationally-backed efforts to limit North Korea’s ability to threaten others, cooler heads should prevail. The situation will then remain, as they used to say in the Habsburg Empire, “catastrophic, but not serious.”

John Torpey is director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Thomas G. Weiss is director emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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