The Looming Catastrophe of Trump and North Korea

With Trump in office, world leaders are concerned that the United States might take unilateral military action now

President Trump reportedly told Chinese President Xi Jinping last weekend that he'd had enough of China's inability or unwillingness to deal with North Korea, and that the United States is ready to act "on its own." Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Can we count on Donald Trump to respond calmly and carefully to North Korea's provocations, including the recent blastoff of what appears to be an ICBM? Is the president, who recently descended into kindergarten-like twitterstorms of invective against a pair of MSNBC morning show hosts and reposted a video of himself punching a CNN-headed figure to the ground, likely to respond with statesmanship to a country whose dictator said that the missile launch was designed to "slap the American bastards in their face"?

The question answers itself.

Which is why world leaders, from South Korea and Japan to Russia and China, are concerned that the United States might take unilateral military action now. On Sunday, in a phone call with President Xi Jinping of China, Trump reportedly told Xi that he'd had enough of China's inability or unwillingness to deal with North Korea, and that the United States is ready to act "on its own."

In the face of the intricately complex, three-dimensional chess problem that is North Korea's accelerating nuclear threat, since his January inauguration President Trump has unleashed a machine gun-like burst of 140-character responses that display an unhinged, mercurial state of mind. It's bad enough when one country is led by a leader who's often appeared to be on the edge of mental illness – earlier this year, Sen. John McCain called Kim Jong-un a "crazy fat kid," though Psychology Today deemed Kim "power-addled" but "rational." In the case of the U.S-North Korea standoff, not only North Korea but the United States too is led by a man who exhibits a "dangerous mental illness," according to a panel of psychiatrists at a Yale University conference, who called him "paranoid and delusional."

None of this inspires confidence in the outcome of the growing tension between the two nuclear-armed states. The crisis itself is real: faster than anyone, including intelligence experts, expected, North Korea has developed and fired off an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of more than 4,000 miles, making it capable of striking Alaska, and perhaps Hawaii. It has exploded nuclear weapons in tests five times, including twice in 2016, and its short- and medium-range missiles may already be capable of carrying atomic weapons to hit targets in South Korea and Japan, including American forces. It may have as many as 10 to 16 nuclear weapons already, according to the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. And, by all accounts, Kim Jong-un has no intention of giving any of it up.

Since taking office, when he was warned by then President Obama that North Korea would be his most urgent problem, Trump emphasized again and again that he would be able to persuade China to handle North Korea for him. Having repeatedly declared during his presidential campaign that China can "solve that problem for us," after meeting Xi at the presidential retreat in Mar-A-Lago Trump apparently realized that it's more complicated than it looks. "After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy," Trump said. "I felt very strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it's not what you would think." Soon after that, Trump declared that he was sending "an armada" steaming toward North Korea, and tensions have steadily escalated ever since. And, after the North Korean ICBM launch, the United States and South Korea flexed military muscle, conducting a live-fire, joint military exercise in the waters off the Korean peninsula.

But if Trump is angling for a military showdown with North Korea, the most likely result would be catastrophic. In addition to its nuclear arms, North Korea reportedly has 8,000 pieces of artillery and rocket launchers trained on South Korea and Japan, capable of firing a staggering 300,000 rounds in the first hour of war. Estimates of the number of people killed in South Korea, including Americans, suggest as many as 300,000 dead in just days. And if North Korea's Kim suspects that even a limited, preemptive American military strike is ultimately aimed at decapitating the regime and toppling his government, he's likely to unleash not only his nukes but an array of chemical and biological weapons, too, resulting in casualties in the millions.

In Germany later this week, Trump will meet with world leaders, including China's Xi, the leaders of the NATO alliance, the presidents of Japan and South Korea, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Should he choose to do so, the U.S. president can use these meetings to cool down the crisis and to set into motion the wheels of diplomacy. "The important thing is that Donald Trump doesn't let himself be backed into a corner and that he understands that there are long-term options to contain, constrain, and deter the regime," said Adam Mount, an expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

And cooler heads – former U.S. officials and diplomats, editorial writers, and area specialists on Korea – are pretty much agreed that to avoid a shooting war, the United States has to keep its powder dry and seek a negotiated solution. Six top former officials and experts, including former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, wrote to Trump in June urging exactly that. "As experts with decades of military, political, and technical involvement with North Korean issues, we strongly urge your administration to begin discussions with North Korea in the near future," they wrote. "In our view, this is the only realistic option to reduce dangers resulting from the current high state of tensions and prevent North Korea's ongoing development and potential use of nuclear weapons."

Both Russia and China have weighed in as well. In a July 4th meeting in Moscow in advance of their encounters with Trump at the G20 meeting this week, Putin and Xi jointly proposed the idea of a North Korean freeze of its nuclear weapons and missile-testing program in exchange for a freeze on U.S. and South Korean military exercises. According to The Independent, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who'll meet with Trump as well, will also appeal to China and Russia to support diplomacy.

A freeze-freeze solution wouldn't solve everything, of course, since North Korea will retain its nuclear arsenal. But it isn't likely that Kim Jung Un will easily abandon his newfound military power, especially under the threat of U.S. attack. (The U.S.-Iran deal, much denounced by Trump, was only accomplished when the United States realized that Iran would never abandon its nuclear enrichment program – even under American threats that "all options were on the table," so the only option was an agreement to vastly reduce, constrain and monitor it.) And Kim knows well the example of Libya, which gave up its nuclear program only to fall victim to a U.S. regime-change attack and the parallel lesson of Iraq, whose regime was toppled in part not because it had nuclear weapons, but because it didn't.

In the end, the only lasting solution will probably be the complete and total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, with North Korea giving up its nukes in exchange for an American promise to eliminate the U.S. nuclear capability in and around South Korea and to pledge not to seek the overthrow of Kim's oppressive government. That could take many years, along with intensive diplomatic support from the United Nations, Russia, China and other powers, to be achieved. In the meantime, the sort of freeze-freeze proposal suggested by Beijing and Moscow would be a good first start.

Trump and Kim, however, may have other ideas.