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Belligerent rhetoric won't work on North Korea

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson is a columnist with the Washington Post.

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Monday, January 1, 2018

My hope for the new year is that the United States doesn't bluster and blunder its way into a tragic, needless war. My fear is that the Trump administration is capable of doing just that.

Rhetoric from the administration about North Korea’s nuclear threat is increasingly apocalyptic, including statements by officials such as H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, who unlike the president is not known for meaningless blather.

The potential for war with North Korea "is increasing every day," McMaster said last month at a defense forum. "Time is running out" for a peaceful solution, he declared in another public appearance. "I don't think we can tolerate that risk" of a nuclear-armed North Korea with advanced ballistic missiles, he told CBS in an interview.

What is alarming is that the situation McMaster describes as intolerable is the situation that exists today. And while he warns that time is running out for a peaceful end to the standoff, he has also said that "there can't be negotiations under these current conditions."

I worry that with such absolutist rhetoric, the United States is ruling out the realistic options for peace. No amount of threatening is likely to make Kim surrender his nuclear weapons, because he sees them as an insurance policy. The North Koreans watched as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein gave up their nuclear ambitions — and ended up being deposed and killed.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test while George W. Bush was president, four more while Barack Obama was president and another under Trump. U.S. policy throughout has been remarkably consistent — warnings, sanctions, more warnings, more sanctions, attempts at multiparty talks — and remarkably futile.

What good does it do for McMaster to say the United States cannot tolerate what it is presently tolerating? North Korea has nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. If the United States launches an attack to try to destroy those weapons or take them away, the North Korean regime almost surely would be able to fire off a response that kills many thousands or even millions.

I understand why no U.S. administration wants to be the one to accept the fact that North Korea has joined the exclusive club of nations with nuclear arsenals. But this is, indeed, a fact. Trump and his advisers need to deal with reality as it is, rather than as they would like it to be.

McMaster and others should frame the North Korea situation as a threat to be ameliorated and stop speaking in terms that should be reserved for a full-blown crisis. A threat can be dealt with over time. A crisis, however, requires urgent action — and at present there are no good options.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to his credit, has been trying to cool things down. He even offered to begin talks with the North Koreans with no preconditions, though this overture was quickly nixed by the White House. Tillerson's instinct is the right one: Slow down, stop shouting, start talking.

The obvious solution is some sort of negotiated deal that freezes the North Korean nuclear and missile programs at certain levels. That would mean accepting what the administration now describes as unacceptable, but it would avoid the unthinkable: a bloodbath that could leave not just Pyongyang but much of Seoul, and perhaps Tokyo, in smoking ruins.

Someone should remind Trump that he campaigned on a pledge to end the nation's role as the world's policeman. Since taking office, he has mostly allowed himself to be guided by the generals who surround him — McMaster, chief of staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. On balance, this has been a good thing. But I'm increasingly worried by the way the generals talk about North Korea.

And someone should remind Congress of its constitutional responsibility. Congress, not the president, is given the power to declare war — and, by extension, to prevent it.

Everybody needs to lower the temperature and begin talking in reasonable terms about achievable goals. Something is wrong when the rhetoric from Pyongyang is no more belligerent than what we hear around Washington.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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