The second relatively new element is North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un. Although he has been North Korea’s absolute and “supreme” leader for more than five years, the world is still learning the full measure of his ambition, paranoia, and recklessness. This is a man who has not hesitated to murder even family members, including allegedly his half-brother, to consolidate absolute control. In pushing an ambitious program of nuclear testing and missile development, he also appears more inclined to take risks to expand his power and eliminate imagined threats than his father, Kim Jong Il. Even the faint glimmers of a possible loosening of absolute political control by North Korea’s communist party, the Worker’s Party of Korea, have been suffocated under Kim Jong Un.
The third element is the tough-talking new American president, Donald Trump. While the new American administration has declared the end of “strategic patience” and vowed that the North Korean missile threat “will be taken care of,” Trump is pursuing a more “transactional” approach to engaging China in pursuit of a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. Thus, North Korea is reported to have figured prominently in the first head-to-head meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the president’s Mar-a-Lago estate recently.
It is difficult to exaggerate the stakes here. A preemptive strike on North Korea’s military facilities would have nothing like the limited scope of containment or punishment conveyed by the recent American cruise missile strike on Syria. To accomplish anything meaningful, an American strike on North Korea would have to be on a scale many, many times larger. Even then, it would likely fail to eliminate all of Kim’s short-range missiles (many of which are mobile) or his nuclear weapons (which are surely hidden). And so it could bring on the worst of all scenarios, a furious military response from North Korea with its nuclear arsenal still intact, putting millions of lives in South Korea and potentially Japan as well at imminent risk.
It is no wonder, then, that the Trump administration has rather quickly discovered the virtues of a diplomatic track. Yet the six-party talks, launched in 2003 among Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, the U.S., and North Korea to find a diplomatic formula to halt North Korea’s nuclear program, have been suspended since 2009. While efforts to resume those talks have been surrounded by mutual threats and false starts, North Korea has raced ahead to build an ever more menacing nuclear weapons program, which is now bringing the region to a crisis potentially more serious than anything since the end of the Korean War.
As the old saying goes, however, in crisis there is both danger and opportunity. In his summit with the Chinese leader, President Trump clearly became aware of the complexity of the situation as seen by the Chinese regime: North Korea is not a mere client state of China, and a Chinese attempt to use its economic leverage (such as cutting off essential food and oil supplies) to pressure the Kim dictatorship could bring unpredictable consequences, including, the Chinese fear, a collapse of the North Korean regime that would send millions of North Korean refugees streaming across the border into China.