The war-like rhetoric between the Trump administration and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has gotten completely out of control. It needs to be dialed down markedly before someone gets hurt, because literally millions of lives hang in the balance.
Angry volleys between U.S. and North Korean officials are nothing new, of course. The Kim regime deploys Spartan-like language even more frequently than it deploys short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. We’ve gotten used to broadcasts from North Korean state media about Seoul being enveloped in a “sea of fire” or Los Angeles being destroyed in a triumph over the “imperial aggressors.” On most occasions, we laugh because it just doesn’t seem serious. Who writes this stuff?
But today’s war of words is different. It comes as the U.S.S. Carl Vinson is steaming toward the Korean Peninsula, the American and Japanese navies are conducting military exercises, and the U.S. is installing the THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea. And just to make the situation even more dangerous, Pyongyang is also practicing artillery drills on its east coast — the same artillery units that would level the South Korean capital and kill hundreds of thousands of people if there ever was a full-blown conflict.
Add Trump’s cryptic tweets about “taking care” of the North Korean problem, and you’ve got a situation that is so combustible as to make even the slightest miscalculation extremely dangerous.
While Washington and Pyongyang are acting out, it’s ironic that Beijing is trying to act the grown-up. Chinese President Xi Jinping has counseled calm, patience, and de-escalation in his phone calls to President Trump, and Chinese foreign policy officials have consistently cautioned everybody in the region, including Kim Jong-un, to step away from the cliff. China’s foreign minister describes the U.S.-North Korean standoff as “two accelerating trains coming toward each other with neither side willing to give way,” and he isn’t wrong. It’s as if both the United States and North Korea are itching for a conflict, one that both sides have historically tried to avoid, undoubtedly because the destruction and the casualties would be so extensive and so horrific as to make the Korean War look like child’s play.
Last month, China put an offer on the table to lessen the tension on the Korean Peninsula. On Beijing’s terms, U.S.-South Korean military drills would be suspended in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. The Trump administration denounced that concept as a non-starter immediately after it was proposed, arguing that annual drills with Seoul are a central part of the U.S.-South Korean defense alliance and shouldn’t be tampered with. They have a point: members of Congress would probably throw a fit if President Trump agreed to it, and there is no certainty whatsoever that Kim Jong-un would even consider it.
Something, though, needs to give. U.S.-North Korean ties are hostile on a normal day. The last thing America needs is a scenario where war becomes a greater-than-slim possibility. If a freeze-for-freeze deal isn’t politically acceptable, the Trump administration should explore another alternative—before the war of words escalates into something more serious.