Dealing with the bellicose junior god-king will be one of Donald Trump’s trickiest tasks. It will also be the first big test of how he handles relations with China, which are shifting as the rising superpower challenges the Pax Americana in Asia (see our special report). There are no good options, but arriving at the least-bad ones will require understanding both the regime and the Asian geopolitical jigsaw into which it fits. It will also require patience. Ominously, Mr Trump says he has little when it comes to North Korea, and his vice-president, Mike Pence, says that “all options” are on the table.
Wanting to do something quickly is emotionally appealing. North Korea is a vile, blood-drenched dictatorship where any hint of disloyalty is punishable by gulag or death. Mr Kim has children imprisoned for their parents’ thought-crimes and his own relatives murdered on a whim. The prospect of such a man threatening Los Angeles is harrowing. Yet a pre-emptive strike on North Korea would be reckless beyond belief (see article). Its nuclear devices are hidden, possibly deep underground. Its missiles are dispersed on mobile launchers. Tokyo is just across the Sea of Japan. Seoul, the capital of peaceful, capitalist South Korea, is only a few miles from the border. Northern artillery and conventional missiles could devastate it; a conflict could rapidly turn nuclear and kill millions.
Mr Trump cannot possibly want to start a war. His military actions in Syria and Afghanistan suggest that he is more cautious than his bluster makes him sound. But even creating the impression that he might strike first is dangerous. If Mr Kim were to believe that an American attack is imminent, he might order his own pre-emptive nuclear attack, with disastrous consequences. So Mr Trump should cool his rhetoric immediately.
Dealmaker, meet deal-breaker
For all his eccentricities, Mr Kim is behaving rationally. He watched Muammar Qadaffi of Libya give up his nuclear programme in return for better relations with the West—and end up dead. He sees his nuclear arsenal as a guarantee that his regime, and he, will survive. (Though it would be suicidal for him to use it.) Mr Trump can do little to change his mind. Economic sanctions that harm his people will not spoil his lunch. Cyber-attacks, which may account for the failure of some recent missile launches, can slow but not stop him. America can solve the Korean conundrum only with China’s help.