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Our Korea strategy is failing. Trump must adapt

022418 Editorial Korea pic
President Trump doesn't seem able to admit that China is betraying its pledges. He quickly needs to adjust to reality. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Trump's North Korea strategy is failing and needs urgent change.

Within the next six months, North Korea could equip itself with a functioning nuclear warhead and intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry it far enough to strike Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the president's current strategy is unfit to stop North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from reaching his ICBM destination.

While Trump claims he has successfully unified the international community around a "maximum pressure" strategy to force Kim into serious negotiations over his nuclear and missile programs, the reality is different. Yes, on Friday, Trump announced new sanctions against North Korea's shipping suppliers and smuggling facilitators. The problem is that these sanctions will have only minor effects because they do not cut to the heart of the issue: financial flows. At the same time, there will always be new ships and criminals ready to smuggle goods into and out of the North.

Of course, the clearest sign of a "maximum pressure" failure is South Korea's ardent appeasement of its bellicose northern neighbor.

During the Pyeongchang Olympic Games, which conclude Sunday, President Moon Jae-in's government paid millions of dollars to entertain Kim's sister and his senior henchmen. Moon even invited a top North Korean military spy to join Saturday's closing ceremony.

At a meeting with Ivanka Trump on Friday, Moon distanced himself from Trump, declaring that his "active dialogue [with the North] ... is greatly contributing to easing tension on the Korean Peninsula and improving the South-North relationship."

These are not the words of a leader committed to "maximum pressure."

Still, there is a better subject for pressure than Moon. It is China.

China's President Xi Jinping has pledged to support Trump on North Korea, but has only halfheartedly enforced United Nations sanctions and has duped South Korea into believing that appeasement is the best and most lucrative form of defense.

Trump doesn't seem able to admit that China is betraying its pledges. He quickly needs to adjust to reality.

First, he must alter China's strategic calculus away from its assumption that it can run out the clock. Trump ought to expand threatened sanctions to include any Chinese and Russian financial entities, regardless of size, that facilitate Kim's foreign capital flows. This is the only way to exert real economic pressure on Kim's regime.

Second, Trump must change China's idea of what a North Korea with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles would mean for its interests. Beijing has persuaded itself that only the U.S. would suffer substantially. And Xi believes he'll be able to continue his "one belt" global economic expansion program, as well as his efforts to blackmail neighboring countries into economic submission.

Trump should make Xi think again.

Kim's regime is utterly dependent on Chinese beneficence, so Xi needs to understand that Trump will take action necessary to stop North Korea acquiring the ability to strike America. Beijing must understand that helping North Korea build a nuclear arsenal would be unaffordable not just for America but also for China. Trump should make it plain that the result could be U.S. sales of sophisticated weaponry to Japan, Taiwan, and India. It could mean more U.S. Navy deployments in the South and East China Seas, including through the Taiwan Strait, to illustrate American displeasure and resolve to keep America secure.

And Seoul? Trump must make sure Moon understands that South Korean appeasement of the North will not forestall a U.S. military strike against Kim. Trump should order a military buildup on Guam, and direct the Pentagon to prepare noncombatant evacuation orders for family members of American personnel stationed in South Korea.

Moon would get the message.

In front of all these sticks, Trump should dangle one carrot to tempt Pyongyang. He should let Kim know that while North Korea's verifiable dismantling of its intercontinental ballistic missile program is non-negotiable, Washington will accept him retaining a civilian nuclear program. This is a hard but necessary concession. Kim believes his nuclear program guarantees the survival of his family's tyranny, and he will not surrender it unless compelled by force of arms. Without ICBMs, his nuclear program poses only a tolerable threat to the U.S.

There is a good reason that none of these steps have yet been taken, for each represents a significant diplomatic, economic, or military escalation that carries risk. But time is running out, and Trump, unless he is willing to use military force or accept an unstable North Korean regime that can destroy American cities, must adapt his strategy.