US President Donald J Trump speaks with Xi and Abe about the North Korean nuclear threat
Trump talks North Korea with Xi and Abe
01:24 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John Kirby, a CNN contributor, is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who has been a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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On Monday, President Trump made the threat posed by North Korea a priority in his national security meetings

John Kirby: While Trump is correct in prioritizing the North Korea issue, he should focus on solutions, not threats

CNN  — 

President Trump had a pretty full national security plate Monday: Lunch with ambassadors from the nations that make up the UN Security Council, a meeting with his Defense Secretary and Joint Chiefs Chairman, and dinner with Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Top of the menu: North Korea.

In fact, speaking briefly for the cameras at that very lunch, the President made clear he finds the status quo on the peninsula “unacceptable,” and he called on UNSC members to impose new sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

John Kirby

“This is a real threat to the world, whether we want to talk about it or not,” he said. “North Korea is a big world problem, and it’s a problem we have to finally solve. People put blindfolds on for decades and now it’s time to solve the problem.”

Putting aside the falsehood that the international community has somehow blindfolded itself to this issue, the President has a point. North Korea poses a significant threat to peace and security, not only on the peninsula and in the region, but also potentially to the United States and the rest of the world.

Five of America’s seven treaty alliances are in the Pacific region, alliances that demand US military assistance in case of attack on our friends. One of those alliances is with the Republic of South Korea, a nation in which we have stationed nearly 30,000 American troops.

And remember, the Korean War isn’t over, at least not technically.

We never signed a treaty. We stopped fighting in 1953 and signed an armistice to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”

That final settlement has never been made. That’s why Vice President Mike Pence visited the “demilitarized zone” last week and not the border. And it’s why, according to some experts, young Kim Jong Un has absolutely no intention of giving up his toys. He knows that while he can produce a bomb, he can’t produce a peace. And what he really wants is survival – for him and the regime.

As The Economist noted this week, Kim “watched Moammar Gadhafi of Libya give up his nuclear program in return for better relations with the West – and end up dead.”

So, the young dictator makes it clear he will continue to pursue nuclear and ballistic missile technology so that, one day, he can – if needed – launch a nuke at his enemies.

We must take him at his word.

Bluster? Yes, of course. But he backs that bluster up with constant tests, constant research and constant resources. Kim means business.

Sometimes that business pays off. Sometimes, not so much. But for Kim, there is really no such thing as failure. Each time he attempts a launch or sets off a bomb, he learns. Each time, win or lose, he wins.

He wins because he advances his knowledge. He wins because he proves his seriousness. And he wins because he makes it more attractive for other nations to buy him off. The focus on him elevates him. It elevates the status of North Korea. And maybe, just maybe, helps put him in a better position to ensure the regime’s sustainability.

It’s sort of like that scene from the movie “Lethal Weapon,” where undercover cop Martin Riggs (played by Mel Gibson) tries to pay for a truckload of cocaine with a hundred bucks and then urges the police on scene to fire at will, even though Riggs himself is sure to be caught in the crossfire.

“You wanna see crazy?”

Only Kim Jong Un isn’t just crazy. He is cruel, and he is calculating. And he still appears to calculate that, while North Korea is dramatically weaker than the rest of the world – as well as his southern neighbors – he can raise the stakes high enough that the playing field gets leveled pretty darn fast.

Even if he doesn’t win the escalation race, even if we beat him to the punch with a pre-emptive strike, he can make it very costly, indeed. The death and destruction he could rain down on Seoul alone in just the span of a couple of hours (some estimates have it at more than 100,000 casualties) – not to mention a restart to the Korean War – would be bloody, brutal and disastrous.

And that’s why there are no good options. Only “least worst” ones: More sanctions. More pressure. More diplomacy. More deterrence.

These aren’t sexy solutions. They won’t grab headlines. They won’t provide the instant gratification of, say, Tomahawk missiles striking Syria.

They require time, and there is precious little of that as Kim advances his programs. They require multilateral efforts and international consensus, and there is little patience for that inside the “America First” crowd. They require the energetic cooperation of China, and there is – despite the Trump administration’s claim to the contrary – little evidence of that, either.

But they are still worth exploring, if only because a pre-emptive strike pre-empts only a North Korean nuclear missile from hitting us or our friends – and not a larger war.

Don’t get me wrong. If we get to the point where we need to strike, we should strike. That should always remain an option, as it was under President Obama and his predecessors.

But even as we prepare for that dreadful possibility, we should exhaust every other avenue.

And frankly, we should take some measure of comfort that the Trump administration appears to be doing just that. For all his own bluster, Trump has presided over what appears to be a normal, rigorous and deliberate interagency process to discuss and debate solutions to the North Korea problem.

The first trip Mattis took was to the Pacific region, followed shortly by the secretary of state and more recently the vice president. All of them shored up the confidence of allies and partners about America’s firmness and commitment to dealing with the threat.

The President will bring congressional leaders to the White House on Wednesday for a briefing on North Korea, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to New York on Friday to lead a special ministerial meeting at the United Nations devoted to North Korea.

Two of President Trump’s first official visitors were Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Indeed, he spoke to both leaders again just Sunday, telling Xi, according to the White House readout, that the United States and China must “strengthen coordination in achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

He’s right about that as well. The path to Pyongyang runs through Beijing. No other nation in the world has as much leverage on the North as does China. China knows it, too, though they claim otherwise and are timid about using it. Their spotty implementation of sanctions in the past should not be allowed to continue, even if it hurts the Chinese economy.

The Chinese desire stability on the peninsula, and so have been all too willing to look the other way as imports and exports pass over that border. It has been a fool’s purchase. Now, with an increasingly intransigent and nuclear-capable Kim and the specter of chaos and conflict on China’s border, one hopes Beijing will finally realize that illicit trade wasn’t the only thing happening while they gazed elsewhere.

It couldn’t have been lost on Xi that Kim shot off a missile just two days before the Chinese President arrived in Washington. It was a message intended as much for him as it was for the United States. And it must have left a bitter taste.

If stability is what the Chinese want, they have to know by now they can’t possibly get it by looking the other way. They need to look a little harder at themselves and at Pyongyang. They need to look south. And with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson now heading north, it seems as though the Trump administration is only too happy to remind them.

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    And that’s where the President has it wrong. No, not moving the ships. That’s a key mission for the Navy, providing a measure of deterrence. I’m talking about his own bluster over it. He should take a page from his Cabinet and the national security process he’s put in place and focus on solutions, not threats.

    First of all, we don’t want to scare the wrong Korea. Our South Korean allies have a lot invested in this relationship and a lot to lose if we don’t find a peaceful solution.

    And second, Kim is not a rational actor and not above over-reacting. Pulling a Martin Riggs may make for great soundbites, but this is no movie script. You can’t out-crazy Kim Jong Un.