On Sunday, North Korea announced a successful hydrogen bomb test, and says the weapon can be delivered by ballistic missile. While the delivery claim's credibility is unclear, analysts believe the hydrogen test was indeed successful.
In other words, it's clear that the North Korean nuclear crisis is only escalating.
In response to the test, President Trump sent out a series of tweets. Lamenting China's failure to pressure North Korea, Trump tweeted that China is "embarrassed" by Kim Jong Un's conduct. And he's right, they are. The problem is that China isn't embarrassed enough to do anything about it. But by simply complaining about China on Twitter, Trump sends a message of dissastisfaction but nothing more. And unless the president takes significantly bolder action to alter China's comfort level with its present "do little" strategy, the North Korean crisis will remain unsolved.
Next, Trump lamented South Korea's appeasement policy towards North Korea, or what used to be called "Sunshine" (since appropriated by pop star turned Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau). Regardless, the functional issue here is that South Korea's attitude doesn't need to be a bad thing. As I've explained, by taking a softer tone towards Kim Jong Un, the South Koreans fill a "good cop" role alongside the U.S. "bad cop." Note, however, that this principle does not apply to the Trump administration, which needs unity of message).
Trump's final two tweets were the best.
The president announced a national security council meeting, stating he would be meeting with his "military leaders" later Sunday, and specifically identified two civilian attendees, Generals Kelly and Mattis, by their former military titles. While senior representatives from the U.S. intelligence community and State Department will also be at that meeting, by focusing on the military dimension, Trump shows his patience is running low. This is crucial if Beijing and Pyongyang are to reassess their amenability to serious diplomacy. Trump's Trump card is his own unpredictability.
Next, Trump warned that ...
The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
That threat is overdue. Even now, too many nations continue to proclaim concern about North Korea while also fueling that regime's empowerment. This needs to change.
It's also relevant because alongside China and Russia, U.S. allies such as Brazil, France, Germany, India, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the Philippines are also trading with North Korea. But considering the scale of their U.S. trading in comparison with North Korea trading, were the U.S. to institute a ban, those nations would agree to suspend North Korean economic activity in short order. Moreover, while most of these nations have very low North Korean trade, Kim needs them for his foreign capital generation.
There is, of course, one standout issue: China. For reasons of economics and politics, Beijing will always be the diplomatic key to unlocking Kim's amenability toward a diplomatic compromise. Yet it's obvious that the current U.S. approach isn't working. My next piece will consider some of the ways we could alter Beijing's strategic calculation.