By The Editorial Board
Aug. 9, 2017 7:12 p.m. ET
When Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” Tuesday if it continues to menace the U.S. with nuclear weapons, he provoked almost as much backlash at home as in Pyongyang. The usual diplomatic suspects, including some American lawmakers, claimed his remarks hurt U.S. credibility and were irresponsible.
The President’s point was that the North’s escalating threats are intolerable; he didn’t set any red lines. True to form, Pyongyang responded by putting the U.S. island of Guam in its cross hairs. Mr. Trump may be guilty of hyperbole (quelle surprise), but that is far less damaging to U.S. credibility than Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his prohibition on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. The foreign-policy elite who claim to be shocked also don’t have much credibility after their policy across three Administrations led to the current North Korean danger.
While the President’s words were unusually colorful, the Communist-style language may have been part of the message: Kim Jong Un isn’t the only one who can raise the geopolitical temperature. The U.S. has military options to neutralize the regime’s nuclear threat if it continues to develop long-range missiles, and the U.S. is considering those options.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said as much in an interview Saturday, explaining that Pyongyang’s nuclear threat is “intolerable from the President’s perspective. So of course, we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes a military option.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reinforced that message Wednesday, warning North Korea to stop acting in ways that could “lead to the end of its regime.”
Last week Senator Lindsey Graham told a morning television program, “There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself.” The South Carolina Republican revealed that Mr. Trump told him there will be war if the North continues to develop long-range missiles: “He has told me that. I believe him. If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.”
The China reference is a tip-off that the main audience for this rhetorical theater is in Beijing. Kim Jong Un won’t stop now that he’s so close to his goal of a nuclear deterrent. But China might restrict the flow of oil to the North, for example, if it believes that stronger action on its part could forestall a U.S. pre-emptive strike.
The other audience for Mr. Trump’s remarks is the North Korean leadership around the young Kim. If they believe they are doomed by Kim’s nuclear course, their best chance of self-preservation is to remove him. Regime change and then reunification is the ultimate solution to the North Korean problem.
One statement isn’t going to change minds in Beijing or Pyongyang. The Trump Administration can also signal its seriousness by imposing secondary sanctions on more Chinese companies, financial institutions and individuals. The U.S. also needs to move more military assets into the region to make the use of force credible.
Striking North Korea remains a last resort because the regime can hit the South with nuclear, chemical and conventional weapons. Yet in 1994 then-President Bill Clinton used the threat of military action as he tried to force the North to give up its nuclear program. But former President Jimmy Carter exceeded his diplomatic mandate and maneuvered Mr. Clinton to accept a deal that propped up Pyongyang without adequate inspections.
Diplomacy works best when there is a credible stick to go with the carrots. The Trump Administration has the right idea, even if the President’s words lack the usual diplomatic politesse.