When the Obama administration left the White House, top officials warned that the No. 1 problem the incoming Trump administration would face globally is North Korea.
Nearly eight long months later, the other shoe has dropped with the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to a successful hydrogen bomb test on Sunday. Couple that with the country’s recent testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental United States, one of which flew over Japan, and the U.S. is facing a genuine geopolitical conundrum.
To be clear, there is no ideal response for the U.S. to ponder, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to be holding all of the powerful cards in this high–stakes showdown. North Korea has about 8,000 pieces of conventional artillery less than 40 miles from Seoul, which is home to 25 million people, according to The Atlantic. The South Korean capital could be destroyed within hours should the U.S. decide to attack North Korea. (Granted, the U.S. also could completely destroy North Korea, but that’s at the expense of destroying much of South Korea.)
After calling Kim a “smart cookie” back in April, Donald Trump has since taken a bellicose approach to responding to him—much of it on Twitter—which has done nothing to curb the tit–for–tat game now being played between Washington and Pyongyang.
In early August, Trump reportedly told Sen. Lindsey Graham that he would go to war with North Korea if it continued to test its missiles and develop its nuclear weapons program. In an interview with the Today show’s Matt Lauer, reported by Vox, Graham said some truly terrifying things:
“There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program and North Korea itself…He’s not going to allow — President Trump — the ability of this madman [Kim Jong Un] to have a missile that could hit America.
“If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there,” Graham continued. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die over here — and he’s told me that to my face.”
A week later, speaking from his New Jersey golf club, Trump made his “fire and fury” comments, saying, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Now, faced with the biggest diplomatic challenge yet and a nuclear arms crisis not witnessed perhaps since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Trump is attempting to appear in control of the situation, again by using Twitter.
On Sunday, Trump fired off five tweets by midday. In those tweets, among other things, the president bragged about his leadership, picked a fight with South Korea (a strategic ally in the region and the country that perhaps would suffer most from a U.S. decision to attack North Korea), and threatened to cut off “all trade with any country doing business with North Korea,” a clear reference to China.
The trade threat is an extremely weak position, aside from the fact that it was delivered on Twitter. Last year, trade in goods and services between the U.S. and China totaled nearly $650 billion, and that was extremely lopsided in favor of China. U.S. exports to China in 2016 totaled $169 billion, while imports from China were $478.9 billion.
Exiting a church (a church? Oh, that’s right, it’s “National Prayer Day by Presidential Proclamation!”) on Sunday morning, Trump was asked by a reporter if he is planning on attacking North Korea. His response: “We’ll see.”
The good news is that both Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly are attending in a national security meeting with Trump on Sunday afternoon. If there is a rational way to proceed for the U.S. that doesn’t include nuclear annihilation, the destruction of South Korea, or a damaged U.S. economy from a trade war with China, it will be cooler heads prevailing over Trump’s bravado and short attention span.
As former CIA and National Security Director Gen. Michael Hayden told CNN in a message to Trump, this isn’t a “manhood contest,” it’s a national security issue. And a dangerous, potentially devastating one at that.
Update, 3:36 p.m.: After the national security meeting at the White House, Defense Secretary James Mattis issued the following brief statement:
We had a small group national security meeting today with the president and the vice president about the latest provocation on the Korean Peninsula. We have many military options, and the president wanted to be briefed on each one of them.
We made clear that we have the ability to defend ourselves, and our allies South Korea and Japan, from any attack. And our commitments among the allies are ironclad. Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response—a response both effective and overwhelming.
Kim Jong Un should take heed in the United Nations Security Council’s unified voice. All members unanimously agreed on the threat North Korea poses, and they remain unanimous in their commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Because we are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea. But as I said, we have many options to do so.
Update, Monday, 12:25 p.m.: In the second emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korea in a week, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley stepped up the rhetoric while calling for tougher sanctions on North Korea. Haley said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “begging for war,” the Associated Press reported.
“Enough is enough. War is never something the United States wants. We don’t want it now. But our country’s patience is not unlimited,” Haley said.
France called for tougher U.N. sanctions that could include textiles and labor, among others. The U.N. previously called for sanctions on North Korean coal, iron, and other exports, according to the AP.
Meanwhile, South Korea conducted a simulated military attack by firing missiles into the Sea of Japan to demonstrate its capability of targeting North Korea’s nuclear test site, the AP reported. And North Korea could be readying to test launch yet another ICBM.
Things are ratcheting up, folks.