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North Korea: Provoke or Negotiate?

Terry H. Schwadron

July 31, 2017

In the same week that President Trump threatened to walk away from the treaty to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, North Korea has defied American warnings and launched yet another ICBM capable of reaching the American Midwest. From what we can tell publicly, the U.S. response is to shake the presidential fist, blame China, and send a pair of supersonic bombers on a flyover of North Korea.

In Iran, understandably, government voices there are reacting to renewed U.S. sanctions as a possible abridgment of the nuclear weapons deal, and busily defend their abilities to launch non-nuclear missile tests that could be weaponized easily. By October, the iranians won’t have to waver in their policy, because President Trump is saying that he will not sign another 90-day compliance statement that Iran is standing by what Mr. Trump has called a terrible deal.

The latest assessments of North Korean nuclear weapons development is that now that the country has the delivery system, within a year, North Korea will have the required miniaturization techniques to load a nuclear weapon on an ICBM.

My question is pretty simple: Aside from the ugly words, where is our full-team effort to use all our tools — international agreements, military, technology, cyber, diplomacy, business tools — to bear on the issues raised by both North Korea and Iran? Or should we read large from the White House’s inability to run itself, from the administration’s failure to understand that they need to do a lot more than send insulting tweets in order to re-create a fully functioning health care system, to conclude that something a lot more complicated in stopping other countries from developing and aiming nuclear weapons at us or at our allies is worth a top-drawer program. Simply put, why is protecting us against North Korea not issue Number One?

Listen to the President for more than a few minutes, and you get a good sense of the items he sees at the top of his list. They haven’t changed — the ever-present dangers of illegal immigration, the scourge of international terrorism, the “winning” strategies related to cutting corporate taxes to help create manufacturing jobs and rebalancing American trade, and above all, Making America Love Trump Again. Bring up North Korea, and he brings up China.

His latest tweets on the subject following Friday’s missile launch were typical: Trump said, “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet . . . . they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”

Meanwhile, we saber-rattle. Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, U.S. Pacific Air Forces commander, said the U.S. and its allies are prepared to use “rapid, lethal and overwhelming force,” if necessary, against North Korea following some joint military exercises involving U.S., South Korean and Japanese forces.

Likewise, the President warned that Iran faces “grave” consequences as well for continued support, not covered by the nuclear arms development deal, for Hezbollah and other Middle East trouble-makers. Mr. Trump has decried the Iran deal repeatedly for not addressing the full variety of problems traced back to Iran, and for a deal that does not help America first.

These things are one thing for speeches, but another in the face of actual missile tests that can reach the U.S. homeland. I hear in daily White House briefings about the President finding plenty of time to give politically and socially inappropriate speeches to the Boy Scouts, but not about lobbying with international allies to line up support for nuclear deals. I hear plenty about who’s up and who’s down in West Wing politics, but nothing about international diplomacy efforts with North Korea or Iran, nothing about arranging for discussions with these nations, little about renewed efforts to coax China, Russia or European nations into more active coalition roles with the outliers.

Perhaps the plan is to send The Mooch out to curse at the North Korean leader in lieu of actual policy. Can’t we get as much attention on nuclear weapons as we have on illegal immigrants?

The point is that we have clear and present danger building in North Korea, a situation that gets complicated very quickly when you realize that 20 million South Koreans are within missile lobbing distance of a rebellious North. Sending a pair of stealth bombers over North Korea is not likely to stop a seemingly determined despot like Kim Jin-Un. The White House’s sharp threats are ineffectual, and worse, they are ineffectual at a time when the President is picking the same fight with Iran.

The Congressional sanctions bill aimed at North Korea, Russia and Iran may just have provoked all three nations. What is needed is a re-consideration of our goals in both regions, and an all-hands approach to getting process under way towards reaching that goal. Negotiations, Mr. Deal Maker, can’t happen unless you identify someone with whom to negotiate and bringing all of your tools to the table. What we need is confidence that there is a full U.S. team in place — the State Department continues to carry vacant Assistant Secretary vacancies — and an agreed-upon plan.

Mr. Trump has been filled with rhetorical gas about the failures of the Obama group to grapple with Iran. Now these problems are on his watch. Why should we believe he is getting more results.

Once again, I ask, if we’re serious, why aren’t we getting something done?


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