by THE EDITORIAL BOARD · August 1, 2017
As President Trump has implicitly conceded, his approach to the North Korean nuclear threat is failing. It was all about putting the responsibility on China to force the North to abandon its program, which has grown increasingly and alarmingly formidable and now includes as many as 21 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. “I am very disappointed in China,” he tweeted over the weekend.
Mr. Trump was driven to play the blame game after North Korea on Friday tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that, for the first time, appeared capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States. It marked the second ICBM launch in 24 days and the kind of technical achievement that American presidents said the United States could not tolerate. Mr. Trump, in fact, had insisted in early January that such a missile “won’t happen.”
Well, it did happen — twice. And while experts question how soon a reliable nuclear weapon can be fired on a missile, it is wise to assume that North Korea’s program will continue to advance, putting the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan at greater risk, unless a way is found to break the present cycle of threats and testing.
That cycle persisted over the weekend. On Sunday, in a show of force, the United States flew two B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula and conducted a successful missile defense test over the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, South Korea said it would soon ask the Trump administration to allow it to build more powerful ballistic missiles that could strike deep into the North.
There is no underestimating the difficult spot in which Mr. Trump finds himself. President Bill Clinton and the North Koreans negotiated what amounted to an eight-year truce under which the North agreed to freeze its plutonium program. The George W. Bush administration didn’t like the agreement, which later fell apart. President Barack Obama tried new negotiations, failed and then gave up. North Korea and its nuclear program, long a complex challenge with no surefire solution, thus is becoming exponentially worse.
There is no getting away from the fact that China can and should do more to pressure the North to curb its nuclear program. The Chinese don’t want Pyongyang to have nuclear weapons. But their greater fear is that North Korea’s government could collapse, sending millions of refugees fleeing across the border and effectively handing power over the peninsula to South Korea, which in turn means putting an American ally on China’s border.
The Trump administration, backed by Congress, has not given up on the idea that China can be forced to help, and is preparing to increase the pressure on Beijing by sanctioning Chinese banks doing business with North Korea. But sanctions alone are not the answer. Mr. Trump needs to face the reality that he cannot solve this crisis by proxy, that he must intervene directly and that he should do so soon. Tensions, already high, could increase this month when American and South Korean forces hold their annual military exercises, which the North Koreans take as a sign that the allies want to overthrow their government.
What would such direct intervention entail? For starters, Mr. Trump should drop the bluster and dispatch Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or some other high-level envoy to Pyongyang to explore whether there is any basis for negotiations. In May, the president raised the possibility of meeting the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, himself “under the right circumstances” to defuse tensions.
Even a Tillerson visit would be a major diplomatic undertaking. China, Russia and some American nuclear experts have advocated a proposal under which North Korea would freeze its nuclear and missile testing in return for the United States and South Korea limiting their military exercises. It is not at all clear that Mr. Trump’s chaotic White House and weakened State Department are in any position to take these ideas and turn them into a coherent negotiating strategy.
The administration has said North Korea must send a “tangible signal” that it will abandon its nuclear program before talks even begin. This is not a realistic basis for negotiation. The North’s program is advanced and its leadership deeply distrustful. Talks should begin without preconditions; what’s most urgent is to halt the program’s progress.
Are the North Koreans even interested in talks? American experts who study the issue say there have been repeated signals in recent weeks that they are. That can’t be known, however, unless someone goes and asks them.