The centerpiece of President Donald Trump conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday will doubtless be North Korea. Before their first meeting in April, Trump’s message to Xi was unmistakable: You solve this problem, or I will, and you won’t like the way I do it. Then, just after he served Xi and his wife chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago, Trump excused himself and went to an adjacent room to announce that the U.S. was launching 59 cruise missiles against Syria. Message: I’m serious.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly complained that his predecessors left him a mess in North Korea, with an emboldened regime in Pyongyang that threatens to soon have a credible capability to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon. “It should have never been given to me,” he told an interviewer in October. “This should have been solved long before I came to office, when it would have been easier to solve. But it was given to me and I get it solved. I solve problems.”
But will President Donald Trump really “solve” North Korea? The answer is most certainly no. Indeed, I am so confident in answering no that I am prepared to bet $100 of my money—against $1 of anyone who wants to wager—that when Trump leaves office, a nuclear-armed North Korea will remain a major challenge for his successor.
Why is the North Korea challenge essentially unsolvable? Because of brute realities that defined the problem before Trump arrived. Specifically, when he entered office nine months ago, North Korea already had dozens of nuclear weapons, as well as short- and medium-range missiles that could deliver them against South Korean and Japanese cities. Moreover, it stood on the cusp of an ICBM capability to credibly threaten attacks on San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Well before Trump mounted his campaign for the presidency, Kim Jong Un had concluded that the surest way to protect his regime from an attack by the U.S. was a sturdy nuclear security blanket. North Korean leaders listened carefully to President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address when he famously named an “axis of evil”: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Bush then proceeded to launch a massive attack against Iraq, the only one of the three that had no nuclear weapons or serious nuclear weapons program. A decade later, Bush’s successor joined the British and French in an extensive air campaign against Libya that overthrew Muammar al-Qaddafi, who just eight years earlier made a deal with the U.S. to give up his nuclear weapons program. As Bush’s Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman later quipped, we taught bad guys around the world that “if you have no nuclear weapons, we will invade you; but if you give up your nuclear weapons program, we will only bomb you.”
If these realities make it impossible for President Trump to “solve” North Korea, what can he hope to achieve on this Asia odyssey?
Jump ahead a year to November 2018. At that point, we will know what happened in the current staredown between Kim and Trump. There are three possibilities: (1) North Korea will have completed the next series of ICBM tests and be able to hold American cities hostage; (2) Trump will have ordered airstrikes on North Korea to prevent that happening; or (3) a minor miracle will have avoided the first two possibilities.
The safest posture is to hedge one’s bets, or even better, to craft a Delphic pronouncement that sounds profound but leaves sufficient wiggle room to allow one to claim to have been right whatever happens. But if forced to place my bet, I’d wager that Kim wins. He will conduct the tests, and U.S. intelligence will report that he now has a credible threat to hit the continental United States. Of course, he would never do that—or at least almost never. He knows that doing so would mean committing suicide for himself and his regime. Nonetheless, Americans will be living in a significantly more dangerous world.
If required to quantify my odds, I put the first option (No. 1 listed above) at 50 percent. For the rest, saving 10 percent for possibilities beyond the three I am currently able to identify, I would split the remainder: betting that there is a 25 percent chance of a U.S. attack and a 15 percent chance of a miracle.
Currently, most of Washington’s national security experts are not only expecting, but even hoping for the first option, since they find the second unacceptable and the third too remote a possibility to believe. Unfortunately, most have not yet recognized how dangerous that world will be.
Why will it be more dangerous than the challenge we face today? Because Kim will be emboldened by his success. He will have gone eyeball to eyeball with the leader of the most powerful country in the world and forced him to blink. He will have trumped Trump.
What can we look for in Kim’s next act? If he follows his father’s and grandfather’s script, watch for coercive extortion. In response to Kim’s tests, the U.S. will further tighten sanctions to threaten the regime’s economic survival. His response will remind us of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s observation: North Korea will “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” A nation known in U.S. intelligence circles as “Missiles-R-Us” will threaten to become “Nukes-R-Us.”
Could North Korea sell nuclear weapons to another rogue state? The U.S. would warn the regime that this would cross an inviolable red line. But what could we threaten that Kim would believe we would actually do? He will reflect on the fact that the U.S. was not prepared to attack North Korea to prevent it from acquiring an ability to strike the American homeland. For what else would it risk war—other than a full-scale attack on the U.S. or an American ally?
The second option, particularly if it involves a limited cruise-missile attack like the one Trump launched in Syria, is operationally feasible and can interrupt Kim’s ICBM tests. The question is: How will Kim respond? Most U.S. intelligence analysts believe he will shell Seoul with conventional artillery. Just last week, a high-level North Korean defector told Congress that this is the plan. North Korea has long deployed and regularly practiced the use of this threat to Seoul. Killing tens of thousands of people overnight would not be that difficult.
In order to stop the firing that could kill hundreds of thousands more, South Korea and the U.S. would conduct strikes to destroy these long-range artillery guns and other missiles and rockets poised to hit the South.
This would mean attacks on several thousand aim points. Even if the effort was successful in significantly limiting the number of additional bombs exploding in South Korea, the consequence of the attack would almost certainly be the initiation of a Second Korean War. And the further wild card that cannot be wished away is North Korea’s substantial nuclear arsenal and missiles.
When asked about this scenario by Congress, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has repeatedly insisted that such a war would be “catastrophic.” He has reminded members of Congress that in the first Korean War, tens of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Chinese and millions of Koreans died.
Mattis has also assured Congress that at the end of such a war, the U.S. would win and the Kim regime would be gone. The question he has not addressed, however, is what China would do. The Chinese security community has been as loud and clear as it could be that Beijing would never allow a unified Korea that is an American military ally. That, they say, was the big lesson from the first Korean War.
Which brings us to pray for a minor miracle in which Xi and Trump, acting together, convince Kim to halt his nuclear advance. This is not quite as farfetched as it may seem at first glance. Xi has found Kim almost as frustrating as Americans have. Repeatedly, Kim has demonstrably dissed Xi by launching missiles or testing nuclear weapons to “celebrate” major events in Beijing: the BRICS Summit, the grand announcement of Xi’s multi-trillion dollar One Belt One Road Initiative, the visit of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to plan for the summit in Beijing with Trump.
China controls North Korea’s oil lifeline. If it squeezes that pipeline, North Korean aircraft, tanks, missile launchers, trucks, cars and factories will feel the pain. China has been reluctant to exercise this influence for fear of how Kim might react. But after recent provocations, Chinese officials have begun signaling that Xi might be willing to take that risk.
Careful watchers of last month’s 19th Party Congress in Beijing have noted the dog that did not bark. During the coronation of China’s new emperor, the only peep from Pyongyang was a letter of congratulations from Kim. Whether this caution will carry over to the meetings between Trump and Xi on Thursday we will soon see.
If Trump and Xi seek to hammer out a joint plan for stopping Kim from further ICBM and nuclear tests, what could that look like? The Chinese government has offered a formula it calls “freeze for freeze.” North Korea would stop testing for the year ahead and the U.S. would stop or significantly modify joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that Kim despises. The U.S. has rejected that idea outright. But if Trump recognizes that the only alternatives are the two we have discussed, it should be possible to find adjustments the U.S. could make in exercises, bomber flights and troop levels in South Korea that, while uncomfortable and ugly, do not compromise anything vital. Whether that would be sufficient to persuade Xi to threaten Kim’s oil lifeline, and whether Kim would accept a freeze for freeze, is uncertain. And even if such a deal were possible, this would only kick the can down the road for another year.
Nonetheless, given where events stand today, if Trump and Xi can find their way to cooperate to produce this minor miracle, we should all give thanks. Indeed, having found out what they can achieve when the U.S. and China are prepared to be more imaginative and adaptive in cooperating, they might find ways to go further, and begin rolling back Kim’s nuclear program. And even this partial success would lay a foundation for managing other arenas where the Thucydidean dynamic of a rising power’s threat to displace a ruling power creates serious risks of catastrophic war.
Would I bet on this happening? Nope. But I hope it does.