THE BLOG
03/10/2017 05:30 pm ET

Weekend Roundup: North Korea Nears The Brink

Kim’s reckless missile tests challenge America’s untested new president. A clash between the two most unpredictable leaders in the world is a perilous prospect.
North Korea tensions pose a tricky test for U.S. President Donald Trump.
WorldPost Illustration/Getty
North Korea tensions pose a tricky test for U.S. President Donald Trump.

Not even two months into office and with only a skeleton national security team in place, U.S. President Donald Trump is facing what could be the most perilous nuclear-related military confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis over half a century ago.

Fearing an outbreak of “actual war” as North Korea has threatened, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this week urgently called on its ally to end all missile tests and for the U.S. and South Korea to suspend joint military exercises. He warned that the U.S. and North Korea are “like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, and neither side is willing to give way.”

The potential calamity that could result from a clash between the two most unpredictable leaders in the world makes the search for a breakthrough more urgent than in previous crises. In their response to the latest tests, China has sought to pressure Pyongyang by halting coal imports, a key source of income for the Hermit Kingdom. But compounding the conundrum of how to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to heel, China is at the same time furious over the installation of a U.S.-South Korea missile shield aimed at the North but whose prying radar “can ‘reach’ into Chinese territory.” Completing the perfect storm, South Korea’s Constitutional Court on Friday upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, thus removing her from office. After many years of slow burn, the North Korean menace has reached an inflection point where the whole region is at risk of conflagration.

Clearly it is time to try a new strategy beyond sanctioning and isolating North Korea to stop its nuclear threat. Madame Fu Ying, one of China’s top diplomats who has been dealing with Pyongyang since 2003, made the case to me recently in Beijing that this long-standing approach is not working, but only making the beleaguered regime more belligerent. Pulling out a chart tracing the decades-long path to nuclear armament and ballistic missile development, Madame Fu said the pattern is clear: when there are talks, the buildup stalls; when there are sanctions, the North doubles down on amassing an ever-more powerful arsenal.

“The U.S. keeps pressuring China to stop Kim, and we have gone along with that,” she said. “But it is America that, in the end, holds the key to resolving the crisis. That key is direct negotiations with North Korea as a step towards a peace treaty and a guarantee against regime change.” Absent that, her argument went, the only path to security from the North’s perspective is its weapons.

Despite other tensions, the highest priority now is for China and the new Trump administration to join as indispensable partners in pursuing a path along the lines Fu Ying has suggested. In such a scenario, North Korea would still likely retain a nuclear capacity ― unlike Iran, it already crossed this threshold long ago. But, in return for recognition and security, the Kim regime would be obliged to halt new testing and dismantle all intermediate and long-range missiles that could carry nuclear warheads to other countries, especially Japan.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who participated in U.S. talks with North Korea’s leaders back in 1999, takes this diplomatic option seriously: “I believe that North Korea might well agree to give up testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and agree not to sell or transfer any of its nuclear technology in return for economic concessions from South Korea and security assurances from the U.S.”

To be sure, such a deal would be hard for any U.S. administration to swallow. It rankles deeply to act as if rewarding aggressive behavior. But in this case the only other course to the U.S. negotiating directly with North Korea is the continuing buildup of an even greater destructive capacity that could be unleashed in an inevitable future war. As Perry writes, “I do not suggest this approach with any enthusiasm. But our only realistic alternative is military force.” 

If this far from perfect arrangement could be made, it would not only serve to reduce the immediate danger, but also serve as a new foundation for security and cooperation ― instead of confrontation ― between the U.S. and China on other issues at conflict in East Asia. 

One such area where Beijing and Washington are bound to clash, but will need to cooperate, is trade. As the West turns against globalization, Ivan Tselichtchev writes from Hong Kong that Asia is becoming the champion of free trade, building new links with each other that don’t depend on the American market. 

Key leaders are also clashing elsewhere outside Asia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week “accused the other of acting in bad faith” in a controversy over whether Erdoğan’s allies can campaign in Germany among the many Turks who live there ahead of an April referendum that would consolidate the Turkish president’s autocratic powers. Writing from Berlin, Fabrizio Tassinari sees this fraught moment ― the culmination of tensions all along the road of Turkey’s failed effort over decades to join the European Union ― “as the end of Turkey’s European history.” In an interview, French writer Jean d’Ormesson worries that the “real victim” of populism, both in the U.S. and Europe, is democracy. “All of France is moving to the right,” he laments. Nick Robins-Early reports on how “far-right bots” are behind the social media surge of French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen.

The issue of Islam and refugees continues to roil American politics as the Trump administration announced a revised travel ban this week. Taking the long view, Muslim scholar Akbar Ahmed advises Trump to learn from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who, at the height of the Crusades, was able to work with his Muslim counterparts in Jerusalem to establish tolerance and the sharing of religious sites. Anastasya Manuilova reports from Moscow that there has been a noticeable decline in “Trumpophilia” as the “bromance” between the American president and Russian President Vladimir Putin dwindles amidst the Trump-Russia controversy in the U.S.. For most Russians, she says, “Putin’s bromance with Trump is already on its deathbed, and with it, any chance for a genuine reset.”

Following up on our interview last week with Indian author Pankaj MishraGregory Rodriguez writes that, “[Mishra] sees the destruction of local, intimate, long-rooted systems of meaning as opening a spiritual Pandora’s box within which lies infinite doubt and disillusion.” To wrestle with the “nothingness” left behind, Rodriguez argues that “Western liberals need to admit that we have finally reached the limits of the Enlightenment’s cult of secular individualism.” 

Even as tensions increase over North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Ariel Conn raises the specter of a new threat on the horizon ― an “AI arms race” as the technology spreads to develop lethal autonomous weaponry.

Finally, our Singularity series this week examines a plan in New Zealand to rid the country of predatory plants and animals by 2050 through the use of “genetic engineering techniques to render invasive species infertile, exterminating them from within their own DNA.” 

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