North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations warned yesterday that nuclear war "may break out at any moment" on the Korean peninsula, and the deputy ambassador claimed that the "entire U.S. mainland" was now within the regime's firing range. Undercutting the second claim, an unnamed North Korean official told CNN that Pyongyang would not be ready for diplomacy until it had a missile that could reach "all the way to the East Coast."
This latest round of tough talk comes as the U.S. and South Korea conduct a five-day military drill in the waters around the peninsula. The drill, which involves 40 naval ships and submarines, live-fire exercises, and anti-submarine training, is reportedly meant to prepare for a potential "naval provocation" by North Korea.
Next week the U.S. military will conduct another drill, this one to prepare "service members and their families to respond to a wide range of crisis management events such as noncombatant evacuation and natural or man-made disasters," according to a rare statement from U.S. Forces Korea (motto: "We go together"). The military characterized the drill as routine.
Everything about this situation has been routine: the posturing, the threats, the drills, the rejection of authentic dialogue. And while the American end of that routine is now filtered through the Trump Show presidency, the fundamentals remain largely, and frustratingly, the same.
There have been some marginal improvements. The U.S. effort to engage China's help with Korea marks a break from the "Asia pivot," which was largely an attempt to contain China and which predictably prompted Beijing to take a more confrontational posture.
It's important to keep the North Korean threat in context. Military intervention is an ugly prospect for the U.S., for China, and for other regional powers. It is also an ugly prospect for North Korea. An extended quagmire is small comfort to the regime's leaders if they hang at the start of it.
The U.S., and China, have the capability to destroy North Korea with nuclear weapons. The U.S. has signaled as much to North Korea for years, though not with language as bombastic as Donald Trump's.
The United States has also, since the cessation of the Korean war, guaranteed the security of South Korea and Japan. Here, too, Trump has taken a different approach. While his equivocation about American security commitments has rattled foreign capitals, it has also encouraged American allies to take more responsibility for their own defense.
South Korea's new center-left president, Moon Jae-In, has called for engagement and eventual reunification with North Korea. This summer he introduced a military budget that he said prioritized "self-reliance," In the meantime, Japan, long constrained by post-World War II restrictions, scrapped its self-imposed defense spending cap.
There is no easy solution to the North Korea crisis, or it would have been resolved by now. But the path to a solution is fairly clear. Regional powers responsible for their own security will have a stronger, clearer incentive to deescalate tensions and find a resolution when they don't think they have the option of depending on a deus ex machina from afar.
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