We are at war. Well, we’re not actually at war yet, but clearly at the brink of war, maybe even nuclear war, thanks to the bellicose rhetoric of two hotheads, neither of whom can be trusted to act like grown-ups.
Incendiary rhetoric is nothing new from the leaders of North Korea. In the past, however, that’s been counterbalanced by the firm but steady response of American presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Today it’s just the opposite, with North Korean and American leaders only interested in out-shouting each other.
After the United Nations Security Council approved a U.S.-backed resolution condemning North Korea’s latest ICBM test and applying new sanctions, Kim Jong-un puffed he would launch “thousands-fold” revenge against the United Nations. Donald Trump couldn’t resist one-upping North Korea’s leader with his own boast: “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.” To which Kim responded by threatening to strike Guam.
Think about it. The problem is, in many ways, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are the same person. They’re both insecure. They both have monumental egos, easily bruised. They both have bad hair. Neither one would be where he is today but for his daddy. And, like unruly children on the playground, they both pride themselves on hurling insults and making outrageous statements. It would be funny, if it were not so deadly serious.
To be fair, Donald Trump did not create the tension with North Korea. It’s bedeviled every American president since the Korean War, at the end of which no peace treaty was signed. So, technically, North and South Korea are still at war and have been ever since: with the United States propping up South Korea and China, the lifeline for the North – while North Korea, which correctly believes it got the raw end of the deal in 1953, continues to pursue its goal of reunification of the peninsula, using nuclear weapons as its driving force.
Make no mistake about it. The situation with North Korea is more critical than ever before, especially with Donald Trump, who seems incapable of giving it more than 30 seconds thought before shooting off his mouth or, God forbid, pulling the trigger. But there is a way out of this mess, if we could all accept just three facts.
One. North Korea is now a nuclear state. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama said that would never happen on their watch. It did. President Trump said they’d never develop a missile capable of reaching the United States on his watch. They have. Not only that, North Korea knows what happened to Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi when he gave up his nuclear program. They’ve arrived, and they’re never going back. That’s a reality we have to deal with.
Two. Nobody disputes the fact that the United States has the military might to turn North Korea into a parking lot. It’s so one-sided it’s not even a contest. Yet even the Pentagon admits that any pre-emptive military strike against North Korea would be a bloodbath. North Korea would respond by unleashing its estimated 8,000 artillery guns and rockets aimed at the greater metropolitan area of Seoul, the most densely populated region in the world, with a population of 25 million people and just 30 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. Military planners project 60,000 to 300,000 civilians would be killed in the first day, with 30,000 American troops caught in the crossfire. A second round of strikes would be aimed against heavily populated areas of Japan. Yes, the United States eventually wins that contest, but at what cost?
Three. Diplomacy, not war, is the only one viable solution, in the form of serious talks with all the players in the region: North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States. True, North Korea reneged on its promise made in the last round of talks to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But that just means, now that North Korea is a nuclear power, talks have all the more urgency in order to convince North Korea to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for the economic assistance it needs and international recognition it craves.
At least one person in the administration, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recognizes that reality. “We would like to sit down and have a dialogue with them,” he said this week. The smartest thing Donald Trump could do: Send Tillerson to Pyongyang tomorrow.