Tensions are rising, stocks are falling, and pulses are quickening in the wake of North Korea’s sixth and strongest nuclear test. The Trump Administration has been quick to respond: on Sunday, after Pyongyang claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, Defense Secretary James Mattis responded with a terse statement warning of a “massive military response” to any threat to the homeland. On Monday, President Trump said the Administration was weighing halting all trade with countries doing business with Pyongyang; the next day, he announced that Washington would sell “highly sophisticated military equipment” to Japan and South Korea.
At the Security Council, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is urging countries to support a last-ditch effort to choke off North Korea’s fuel supplies—or else. The New York Times reports:
The Trump Administration, warning that North Korea is “begging for war,” is pressing China and other members of the United Nations Security Council to cut off all oil and other fuels to the country.
The effort, which senior administration officials described as a last best chance to resolve the standoff with the North using sanctions rather than military means, came as South Korean officials said Monday that they had seen evidence that North Korea may be preparing another test, likely of an intercontinental ballistic missile. […]
“We have kicked the can down the road long enough,” Ms. Haley told the council in an emergency meeting. “There is no more road left.”
Haley is right to acknowledge that the road is running out as North Korea marches toward a nuclear ICBM (we at TAI have been saying so ourselves for some time now). But the Administration has yet to wed that assessment to a viable long-term strategy. For all of Trump’s dramatic bluster, he has largely adhered to a familiar playbook of sanctions, stern statements, and exhortations that China must “do more” to restrain North Korea. The demand for an oil embargo is only the latest example.
Unfortunately for Trump, China and Russia are unlikely to follow him up that rung of the escalation ladder. China has long resisted a full-fledged oil cutoff that could endanger the survival of the North Korean regime. And Vladimir Putin promptly declared today that the new U.S. sanctions push was a “road to nowhere,” stating that the North Koreans would rather “eat grass” than give up their nuclear program. In short, the oil embargo sounds like it is dead on arrival—and when Beijing or Moscow vetoes it, they will have effectively called Trump’s bluff.
After all, Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” hardly look credible in Beijing and Moscow; any “military solution” to take out Kim’s nuclear program would kill untold thousands in the process. Few in Washington, and fewer still among the American public, would be willing to bear those costs. If anything, U.S. political forces are drifting toward disengagement from Asia: as Walter Russell Mead points out in the WSJ, both Bannonites on the populist Right and isolationists on the populist Left have questioned the wisdom of upholding American security commitments abroad. This is a trend that the North Koreans (not to mention the Chinese and Russians) are watching with great interest as they seek to dislodge the United States from its perch of power in East Asia.
In other words, China and Russia may be willing to live with a nuclear North Korea if that leads to a weakening of the American position in Asia. And if the United States must learn to live with it, too, we should be strategizing for how we can do so without surrendering our strong standing in the region.
So far, the Trump Administration has shown little ability for this kind of foresight; if anything, it is actively harming its credibility with existing allies. At a time when a united front with South Korea is more critical than ever, Trump has been threatening to withdraw from their bilateral trade deal and accusing Seoul of appeasement. That is a rift that China and Russia will seek to open further, by posing as the “responsible” mediators willing to give peace a chance.
In the long run, the United States will need its own such strategies—like seeking to repair strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo, for instance, or exploiting Beijing’s fears of a nuclear South Korea and Japan to coerce China into a more cooperative position against Pyongyang. There is no guarantee that these strategies will work, and Trump is right to gripe that previous administrations have merely kicked the can down the road. But with the end of the road approaching, it is past time to start gaming out scenarios—however unpalatable and unpredictable—to maximize our position when it finally runs out.