Editorial Board

Don't Play North Korea's Game

Trump's reckless talk makes a bad problem worse.

The trick is to not take the bait.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Immediately after a notable diplomatic win -- unanimous backing at the United Nations for tougher sanctions against North Korea -- President Donald Trump undid much of the benefit by exchanging useless threats of nuclear annihilation with the rogue regime. Instead of playing North Korea’s game of reckless propaganda, Trump should be quietly piling on the pressure while showing more clearly that he’s willing to talk.

Trump Dials Up Warning to North Korea

The president’s threat to rain down “fire and fury” on the North doesn’t change the fact that the military options in this crisis are terrible. Any preemptive strike risks retaliation and massive civilian casualties in South Korea and possibly Japan. The chances of swiftly eliminating dictator Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals are slim to none. Heedlessly initiating any such conflict would be criminally irresponsible.

What’s needed instead is a direct, concerted and open-ended effort to engage the North Korean government, as distasteful and difficult as that may be. Rather than waiting for Kim to show contrition, or attaching unrealistic preconditions to talks, the U.S. should be using every diplomatic lever -- public and covert -- to block North Korea’s progress toward a functioning, nuclear-armed ICBM, and to cap its nuclear and ballistic-missile arsenals.

The sanctions resolution offers such an opportunity. Bolstered by the breadth of support for that initiative, the U.S. could remind the North that the world wants it to reenter the community of nations. The U.S. should offer talks on that basis, without insisting at the outset that they must end in the full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. That’s the correct long-term goal, to be sure, but it’s unrealistic right now. Instead, the Trump administration needs a staged strategy that starts with confidence-building. The U.S. has much to trade -- from economic assistance to various forms of diplomatic recognition -- and shouldn’t disdain such incentives.  

None of this is sure to work: With a regime like North Korea, there are no guarantees. Skeptics say the North will pocket concessions and keep developing its weapons. That’s possible. The case for pressure plus talks isn’t that it’s bound to work, but that the alternative is worse

The pressure can be increased -- not least by making the sanctions work better. Otherwise, the new measures may not shave a third off North Korea’s export revenue, as hoped. The U.S. also needs to deepen its intelligence-sharing and military cooperation with South Korea and Japan. The U.S. and South Korea should keep trying to give North Koreans information from the outside world -- and keep reminding the world of the regime’s human-rights violations.

To give all this the best chance of working, though, the White House will need something that doesn’t come easily to Trump: message discipline. Granted, the bewildering range of positions coming out of Washington recently may have led China to support stronger sanctions for fear of what Trump might do otherwise -- but the so-called madman strategy has limits, especially when deployed to check a madman, and the U.S. has reached them.

It’s vital to leave Kim in no doubt that any use of his weapons would be suicide. But Trump’s careless threats actually undercut U.S. credibility, while obscuring its tentative offers of dialogue. Trump can hope to make real progress on North Korea -- but only if he can learn that sometimes it’s best to shut up.

    --Editors: Nisid Hajari, Clive Crook.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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