President Trump is in New York for his first speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, an event at which representatives from all the world's nations will get the opportunity to see him in person, turn to each other, shake their heads, and say, "Can you believe this guy is the most powerful person on Earth?"
According to reports in advance of Trump's address on Tuesday, much of his attention will be focused on North Korea, a subject about which he has been unusually belligerent of late. While we don't yet know exactly what he'll say, everything we've heard from him and other administration representatives leads us to expect lots of tough talk, and only the remotest connection to reality.
So here's the truth: If we define the North Korea "problem" as the fact that they have nuclear weapons, there may be no solution.
Up until now, however, administrations both Republican and Democrat have basically been pretending that some solution is out there, and difficult though it may be to arrive at, with enough negotiation and inducements and will, we could convince the North Koreans to give up their weapons. As long as you pretend that is the case, you can further pretend that the fact that North Korea has nukes is a temporary state of affairs, one we're dealing with as aggressively as we can without starting some kind of foolhardy confrontation. Then you pass it off to the next administration, which does basically the same thing.
The end result is that while we worry about their weapons, we also learn to live with them, just as we learn to live with many unfortunate situations around the world. But Donald Trump doesn't seem to have figured that out.
So every time North Korea sets off a missile or conducts a test, Trump ratchets up the rhetoric, often with the same kind of comical saber-rattling we've come to associate with North Korea itself; he said that if North Korea keeps threatening us, "they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before." U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley echoed his remarks on Sunday, saying that the administration would try diplomacy, but "if that doesn't work, General Mattis will take care of it."
Let's be generous and assume that Trump does not actually want war with North Korea. If that's true, then he must be under the impression that a more aggressive stance than previous administrations took will produce our desired outcome. Given that sending Mike Pence to literally glower across the DMZ at North Korea didn't do the trick ("I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face," Pence said), what exactly is that outcome? It would mean North Korea voluntarily giving up its weapons, in exchange for something that we and the rest of the world can offer them.
There's only one problem: All evidence suggests that they have zero interest in giving up their weapons. They're already a pariah state, and they seem to view that status, whatever its drawbacks, as a price they're willing to pay. As Evan Osnos of The New Yorker recently explained, not only has the possession of nuclear weapons become central to North Korean national pride, the country's leadership also sees giving them up as akin to regime suicide:
In recent talks, when Americans have asked whether any combination of economic and diplomatic benefits, or security guarantees, could induce Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons, the answer has been no. North Koreans invariably mention the former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In 2003, when Gadhafi agreed to surrender his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, Bush promised others who might do the same that they would have an "open path to better relations with the United States." Eight years later, the U.S. and NATO helped to overthrow Gadhafi, who was captured, humiliated, and killed by rebels. At the time, North Korea said that Gadhafi's fall was "a grave lesson" that persuading other nations to give up weapons was "an invasion tactic." [The New Yorker]
It's pretty hard to argue with their logic. Gadhafi gave up his weapons program, and was overthrown and executed. Saddam Hussein never acquired nuclear weapons, and was overthrown and executed. Meanwhile the Kim family has ruled North Korea since 1948, and everyone seems to agree that no matter how it happened, the fall of the regime would set off a cataclysm, one made far worse by the fact that they now have nuclear weapons. Why wouldn't Kim Jong Un think that his nukes are keeping him safe? We think of Kim as an inexperienced buffoon, which he may well be, but this is one area where he seems to be acting rationally.
Which is why the quasi-charade of the last few years has been, if not desirable, about the best we can hope for: We press them to give up their weapons, they say no; we continue to press without turning it into a crisis, saying that we're hoping for things to change but knowing that they probably won't.
But perhaps the president actually believes that if he issues enough threats, Kim will give him what he wants. It's hard to believe he could be that naïve, but it is Donald Trump we're talking about. We just have to hope that he won't spin things out of control, because the results of that would be too awful to contemplate.