To better understand the ominous ongoing North Korean crisis, let’s view it from Kim Jong Un’s point of view.
Why does this ruthless, 33-year-old dictator, the son and grandson of communist dictators, persist in defiance, provocations and his ambitious nuclear weapons program in the face of international condemnation, sanctions and threats of an overwhelming response by the United States? Why?
Kim has vowed to launch ICBMs on Americans, possibly near the island territory of Guam this month.
Last week James Mattis, the secretary of defense and a Marine combat veteran, warned Kim to abandon any thoughts of attacking U.S. or South Korean forces or face destruction of the regime and its people.
In a controversial, but intentionally strong, statement of his own, President Trump declared any North Korean attack would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Flashback to 2003 when Kim was an impressionable teenager watching his father Kim Jong Il continue the isolated country’s nuclear weapons program in defiance of international threats and in violation of numerous agreements to stop.
As it happened in those days, Libya under Col. Moammar Gaddafi was also pursuing weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring international terrorism despite Western pressures. (Remember Lockerbie?)
But suddenly on Dec. 19 of that year, the Libyan dictator gave in, announcing he would destroy both his chemical weapon stockpiles and nuclear weapons program in return for regime security and an end to sanctions. He did just that.
Eight years later on the way to a South American tour with his mother-in-law and family, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama announced that, without congressional approval, U.S. forces were joining Europeans to oust Gaddafi because he threatened to kill civilians in a rebel uprising.
Seven months later an American drone spied an auto caravan in the Libyan desert. Allied planes attacked. A rebel mob captured Gaddafi, beat and shot him with his own pistol. On her plane, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did a victorious arm pump.
Seeing such diplomatic duplicity, how much faith do you think a binge-eating, insomniac dictator would put in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s vow this month that the U.S. does not seek North Korean regime change, only an end to its threatening weapons program?
Predictably, Trump’s bombast over the Pennsylvania-sized country of 25 million sent the U.S. media into another hysterical tizzy. “President Trump talks as crazy as North Korea’s dictator,” opined one paper. “Trump’s threat to North Korea contrasts with calm reassurances of other administration officials,” warned the Washington Post.
Here’s the thing: Trump wasn’t talking to Beltway media. Not even to Americans, who actually agree with him. Three out of four now see North Korea as a critical threat to national security.
The president’s calculated tough tone was meant for Asia, where long-lasting regimes inevitably promise Americans change in trade or policies, then wait patiently for U.S. politicians to give up or get unelected. Friend or foe, for decades it has worked to their advantage.
“What the president is doing,” Tillerson explained, “is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language.”
Bad-cop Trump was also talking straight to Beijing, which controls 90 percent of Pyongyang’s economy and faces a horrendous refugee flood should serious conflict erupt next door.
Trump was actually being predictably unpredictable. During the 2016 campaign the political rookie said, accurately, that American foreign policy had become too predictable, and under Obama, predictably passive. Remember the Democrat’s notorious red line on Syria and chemical weapons? Syria crossed it. Obama’s response? Nothing. Or China building artificial islands in the South China Sea? Nothing but words.
Now, what happened in April when Bashir Assad once again used chemical weapons on his own people? Within 72 hours, 58 Trump-ordered Tomahawk missiles hit the airbase involved, nowhere else. The result so far: No more gas attacks.
It will take time to restore credibility among would-be foreign adversaries to the threat of proportional but overwhelming American military involvement from this president. His domestic critics will forever feign fear and never be convinced. Trump says, rightly, negotiation is always the preferred route.
But not negotiation alone.
Looking at North Korea’s lethal weapons advances over the last quarter-century of totally ineffective talk without threats by three U.S. administrations, the truth is the strategy of deal-maker Trump could hardly do any worse.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.