Odds of full-blown war go up if Trump threatens North Korea

Odds of full-blown war go up if Trump threatens North Korea
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President Trump’s visit to Asia will put in the spotlight one of the biggest problems that has beset the administration’s policy toward North Korea. On the one hand, Trump is expected to provide assurances to Japanese and South Korean allies that the United States will fulfill its defense commitments in the face of North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile capabilities. On the other hand, Trump must simultaneously convey the urgency and resolve necessary to squeeze North Korea and to face down Pyongyang’s direct nuclear threats toward the United States.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will welcome a tough message of maximum pressure toward North Korea, especially if it comes with a redoubled commitment to expand missile defense capabilities to Japan to defend against North Korean missiles such as those that flew over Japanese territory last August and September. Those tests have stimulated interest within the government of Japan in procurement of missile defense systems such as Aegis Ashore, as well as military retaliation capabilities that could be used against Pyongyang in the event of a missile attack.

South Korea is rolling out the red carpet for Trump’s two-day state visit to Seoul, but desperately wants him to avoid baiting Kim Jong Un, stay on script, and seek a peaceful end to confrontation with North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae In has taken a pragmatic course, recognizing that his country’s security depends on the alliance with the United States. Moon also hopes to dent Trump’s perceptions that South Korea is a security freerider by hosting him at the largely South Korean financed American base at Camp Humphreys south of Seoul. Moon shares worries with some in Congress that an incorrect judgment by the American president could entrap both the United States and South Korea prematurely into an unnecessary and catastrophic war with North Korea.

The combination of North Korea’s growing nuclear threat toward the United States and Trump’s “America first” rhetoric has South Koreans talking about the return of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea or even acquisition of their own nuclear weapons. Moon has rejected these options, and Trump’s National Assembly speech could be influential in shaping South Korea’s nuclear debate. Moon would love to hear Trump abjure preventive war, but he will be relieved if the president simply sticks to a script that repeats prior U.S. policy statements on North Korea, and abstains from personal insults and threats toward Kim Jong Un that diminish prospects for diplomatic dialogue.

The most consequential conversation on North Korea during President Trump’s trip will occur in Beijing, where a domestically empowered Chinese President Xi Jinping will welcome an embattled American president. The urgency and public spotlight Trump has placed on the need to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, along with his focus on China’s role in enabling North Korea, has pushed China further than many observers have expected. But Trump needs full Chinese cooperation and enforcement of sanctions to achieve the maximum pressure required to stop North Korea’s nuclear pursuits, and it is doubtful that Xi will fully satisfy his administration.

Rather, the more interesting question is whether China can identify and pursue independent moves that burnish Xi’s leadership, while tamping down tensions and reducing the risk of a military confrontation between the United States and North Korea, or whether the United States finally takes stronger self-defensive economic measures against North Korea that also prod Chinese firms into going along with efforts to strengthen North Korea’s economic isolation.

As always, the North Koreans will be watching and listening closely to anything that President Trump says or does that is directed at them. Trump’s speech in September at the United Nations drew a stark rebuttal from the North Korean foreign minister, including the threat to conduct the first above ground test of a thermonuclear device in decades, and has had the effect of shutting down effective dialogue channels between Washington and Pyongyang at a moment when crisis communication is necessary to reduce growing risks of misunderstanding and miscalculation on both sides.

Further presidential threats or epithets toward Kim Jong Un would become an additional obstacle to the establishment of effective dialogue channels necessary to reduce the prospects of military confrontation, just at the moment when North Korea is on the threshold of a nuclear strike capability on the United States. Both sides need direct communication to enhance understanding of the risks of conflict that North Korea’s acquisition of such a capability would entail. Otherwise, the probability of a military conflict that will entail inordinate costs to both countries will continue to rise.

Scott Snyder is a senior fellow in Korea studies and director of the Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming book “South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.” The opinions expressed here are his own.