One worrying element in the escalating North Korean standoff, is the perception we have not one, but two bellicose and unpredictable world leaders facing off at time of acute international nervousness.
In this much Kim Jong Un is predictable; his strident war-mongering, almost comic totalitarian rhetoric and despotism have been consistent, as steady as his high-stakes games of national assertion and leadership survival, save he has certainly ceased to be comic. By contrast the United States, still the key player in the maintenance of world peace is led by a president whose intemperate tweets and love of unfiltered bluster has even his own senior staff guessing.
But the threat demands more delicate negotiations, a time where no side should be left without options. The problem with Trump’s ‘no time for talking’ or ‘fire and fury’ is it gives the United States even less negotiating room. Threats are what North Korea expects, even welcomes, as they re-assert Kim’s national narrative. After repeated tests and launches, the US appears increasingly impotent to halt these bluffs short of military action. The balancing game then becomes a drastic and unthinkable trade-off between the United States “not tolerating” a nuclear armed North Korea and the millions of deaths a military escalation on the Korean peninsula would entail. At the same time Korea’s mindset, reinforced with ubiquitous propaganda is that it is a nation under siege, fed on a diet of total victory or annihilation. The sabre rattling from the west only reinforces this ideological cul-de-sac.
The great success of the brinkmanship that was the Cuban Missile Crisis, often considered the closet escalation of the cold war to a nuclear strike, is that Kennedy’s approach to the irascible Khrushchev was that by limiting himself to a blockade rather than an attack he allowed the Russian premier to withdraw but also save face. The threat to American home soil was perhaps no less than it is today but there were certainly delicate negotiators and experts informing a measured white house administration. Trump could do with some help from the likes of Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson to look into the mind of Kim and his motivation. As Stephen Dyson puts it, the US need’s to empathise (not sympathise) with Kim to find this opportunity. The big question is China, which holds both the economic power to make sanctions work and as the new leader in seeing into this mindset and framing a diplomatic compromise.