Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump, June 2017. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.
Although we are still not quite prepared to acknowledge it publicly, a regime change in Pyongyang has to be the goal of U.S. policy if the ultimate aim is to remove a mortal threat against millions of people, both in East Asia and the U.S. mainland.
If that is not the goal of U.S. policy, then what could possibly be the point?
Ahead of President Trump’s trip to Asia this week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in gave a nationally televised address in which he vowed to shore up his country’s military through increased defense spending, though he also called for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang. Moon’s position certainly is not enviable; his country’s next door neighbor continues to trade insults with the United States while ramping up missile tests.
Moon has pressed the U.S. to return wartime operational command. While South Korea has day-to-day military control over its own forces, the top American general in the country would assume operational control if a major conflict broke out, an arrangement dating from the 1950s. It is understandable that South Korea wants this piece of sovereignty back. But Moon also overtly rejected the idea of his country developing nuclear weapons of its own.
Moon has done his best to seize the diplomatic initiative where North Korea is concerned, but the truth is that South Korea cannot solve the problem of the Kim regime alone. With or without nuclear weapons, it is much more target than deterrent.
At the same time, China is determined not to see the Korean peninsula united under a U.S.-allied government in Seoul. Much as China might dislike the unpredictable and bloodthirsty Kim Jong Un, he is – to borrow an old anecdotal characterization – “their son of a bitch.” They plan to keep him that way.
Fresh off his re-election, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he hopes to promote ties between his country and North Korea. While a relatively routine message, its timing seems pointed. For those who thought China might be backing away from North Korea after finally moving past its longstanding dispute with South Korea over the installation of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, Xi’s message to Kim is a reminder that Beijing remains Pyongyang’s sponsor.
The United States has attempted to push China to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear missile program. Recently the U.S. Treasury cut off a Chinese bank from the U.S. financial system after accusations that the bank was laundering money for North Korea. White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters recently that “The president recognizes that we’re running out of time” where North Korea is concerned. But so far, China has done little to indicate it will blink first.
In this most dangerous flashpoint in U.S.-Sino relations, the question comes down to who wants it more.
In the tepid and vacillating Obama administration, that answer was pretty clear. Under the less-tested and less-predictable Trump, we don’t actually know.
What we do know is that the threat from North Korea continues to grow. It is past time to recognize what experience should have already taught us: The only way to remove the threat is to remove the regime that presents it. If we are serious about not living under constant danger from an unstable and demonstrably vicious megalomaniac brandishing weapons of mass destruction, we ultimately must be prepared to remove him by whatever means are necessary.