Kim raises the nuclear stakes again
North Korea sparked condemnation and consternation throughout the world this week, after detonating a massive nuclear device that it claimed was a hydrogen bomb capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. The Hermit Kingdom’s sixth nuclear test—the first since President Donald Trump took office—was measured as a magnitude-6.3 earthquake. Nuclear scientists estimated its yield at 100 kilotons—up to 10 times more powerful than North Korea’s last detonation, and about five times the size of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. Hours before the launch, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un posed with what he said was a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile. Pyongyang described the underground explosion as a “perfect success.”
After meeting with President Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that any threat from North Korea to use a nuclear weapon against the U.S. would be met with a “massive military response.” Trump initially criticized Seoul for the “appeasement” of its neighbor, but later agreed to lift restrictions preventing the country from developing more powerful missiles. He also said he was considering “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea,” which would include China.
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said Kim was “begging for war,” and called for sanctions that would cut off North Korea’s oil supply. But Russia and China pushed for talks with the rogue nation instead and argued that Pyongyang will stand down only if it receives assurances of the regime’s security. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that threatening the North Koreans with annihilation could lead to “nuclear catastrophe,” and said the North Koreans would “rather eat grass than abandon their nuclear program.”
What the editorials said
“The North Korean nuclear threat is worsening by the day,” said The New York Times. Trump’s schoolyard threats have failed to intimidate Kim, and U.S. policy has been “incoherent.” Kim Jong Un understandably sees nuclear weapons as “his only guarantee of survival”—when Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafigave up his nuclear program, he ended up being “bombed by the U.S. and its allies, then executed by rebels.” Beijing is unlikely to agree to an oil ban, because that could cause the Kim regime’s collapse and put a united, pro-Western Korea on China’s doorstep. The only remaining option is “to engage the North Koreans” and see what Kim wants.
“A military strike has to be a last resort,” said The Wall Street Journal. War on the peninsula would decimate Seoul and could leave hundreds of thousands dead. “But the U.S. does have other options.” Washington can expand efforts to encourage North Korean elites to “stage an internal coup.” It could impose “secondary sanctions” on countries or companies that deal with Pyongyang. More drastically, the U.S. could cut off North Korea’s food aid, in the hope that the resulting chaos would “bring down the government.” That may seem “unethical,” but 40 percent of the Hermit Kingdom’s population is already undernourished. “Ending the North Korean state as quickly as possible is the most humane course.”
What the columnists said
All this “hysteria” over North Korea’s nuclear program is “overwrought,” said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. The size or range of an arsenal doesn’t affect the central premise of nuclear deterrence: “Country X won’t fire nukes at Country Y if Country Y has nukes it can fire back.” Kim knows full well that launching an attack on the U.S. or its allies would result in “an annihilating retaliatory blow,” and what’s most important to him is “self-preservation.”
So “what does Kim want?” said Motoko Rich and David Sanger in The New York Times. Some analysts fear he’ll use his nuclear weapons to blackmail the U.S., saying he’ll incinerate Los Angeles, Washington, or New York if we don’t withdraw our 28,000 troops from South Korea. If our troops left, he could then try to reunify the Korean peninsula by force—a “longtime goal” for Pyongyang. Or perhaps the North Korean dictator just wants “a nuclear capability too big to dismantle”—for his country to be treated like Pakistan and India, which no longer face international pressure to dismantle their arsenals.
Washington’s only remaining play is to force China to bring its client state to heel, said Tom Rogan in the Washington Examiner. How? By locking out of the global financial system Chinese companies and banks that deal with North Korea. Yes, that would likely spark a costly “economic showdown” with a major trading partner—but given the stakes, that may be a price worth paying. “It’s time to roll the dice.”
However Trump approaches this dilemma, he needs to cut out the “bellicose rhetoric,” said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. In the past few weeks, the president has declared that “talking is not the answer” and threatened Kim with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” What Trump doesn’t understand is that wars often start when national leaders “play chicken” and try to look stronger than their opponents. World War I, the Gulf War, and Iraq were triggered by leaders’ “miscalculations.” Every time Trump matches Kim threat for threat, he increases the chances of a catastrophic conflict neither side wants.