Americans are growing justifiably anxious about the North Korean situation.
Clearly “strategic patience” and various diplomatic and economic carrots extended over three presidential administrations have not worked. The net result has been to give the North Korean regime the opportunity to further and better arm itself — and to attempt to back down the United States, the West, and most of the rest of the world.
This amounts to a sort of nuclear blackmail and should never have been allowed to progress this far.
Now what? We — the United States and its allies in this matter — cannot back down. We dare not further empower the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un. And we do not want war. Many innocent people in North and South Korea would die. The North would have the capacity to do very great damage, not to the U.S., but to the people in and around Seoul.
Nuclear fallout and the overflow of conventional warfare could also kill many Chinese and Japanese.
The Trump Administration has been left with few good options because the situation has been allowed to drift inexorably toward this most dangerous point. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the President himself have grasped one important point — that the U.S. must wield a big stick as well as multiple carrots. The North Koreans must understand that military options are on the table, and that they will be exercised if all diplomatic options are exhausted.
Those options have not been exhausted yet. The U.N. Security Council has just acted, with the assent of China and Russia, to impose sanctions on North Korea — an action that might have made a difference five years ago. And if Un were recognized as a nuclear power player, he might — might, say experts — surrender some of those weapons.
But only if the military threat is real. And most likely not even then.
President Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” was designed, said Mr. Tillerson, to convey this reality in stark terms. The hope is that it sobered up Un and his generals. It has certainly sobered most Americans.
Now is a time for discipline and quiet back-channel diplomacy. No red lines should be drawn. All further talking, as they say in football, should be done on the field. But we are headed toward a very somber moment indeed.
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