WASHINGTON — Those naughty North Koreans. Imagine them having the temerity to test-fire another missile from a submarine just as U.S. and North Korean negotiators are about to sit down for another round of talks on the North’s nuclear program. Might the North Koreans be capable of affixing a nuclear warhead to one of those things, sneaking up close to American shores and annihilating everyone for miles around wherever it landed?
They’re never going to launch one of them for real, are they? We’re just talking harmless tests, right? Isn’t that what President Trump was telling us? Sure, not to worry, Trump and everyone else in the United States have much more immediate concerns, like, will Trump make it through this term without getting impeached and then found guilty, convicted as charged by the Senate and ousted from the White House?
The conviction part is unlikely since Republicans control the Senate, but you don’t hear much beyond Trump’s troubles on the news these days. North Korea is almost an afterthought for lower down in the program, an inside story in the papers, while the nation is mesmerized by the spectacle of Trump’s enemies attacking him with the certainty that this time, finally, they’ve got him where they want, cornered like a mad beast and unable, they think, to fight his way out of the claims of a “whistleblower,” unnamed, citing “multiple sources,” also unnamed.
By now we know for a fact that Trump did ask the president of Ukraine to look into the wealth accrued by the son of Joe Biden, former vice president and candidate for nomination by the Democratic Party to run against Trump for president next year. Less clear is why Biden’s son was cleaning up tens of thousands of dollars each month sitting on the board of a company doing basically nothing. Nice work if you can get it, but obviously Biden would be pretty vulnerable as a candidate in a campaign in which corruption will be a central issue.
In the midst of this ruckus, few Americans are really aware of the talks opening Saturday between U.S. and North Korean negotiators. For that matter, Trump himself may be too deeply immersed in badmouthing his accusers to be worrying about the talks. Sure, he’d like to claim success in coming to terms with the North Koreans. At the least, he would hope a deal with the North — any deal — would distract from the revelations piling up against him, enabling him to claim one “victory” in his scatter-brained foreign policy, in which he’s jeopardized, undermined and broken agreements hammered out by his presidential predecessors.
It seemed of only secondary importance amid so much other news, but Trump’s erstwhile foreign policy adviser, John Bolton, did pretty well demolish Trump’s entire approach to North Korea in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In fact, the speech was a broadside against Trump, who fired him last month after Bolton strongly disagreed with his soft-line dealings with his friend Kim Jong-un.
It “remains unacceptable,” Bolton began, “that North Korea should have nuclear weapons.” No doubt, but what can we possibly do about it? It wasn’t until near the end of his remarks that Bolton got around to resurrecting those two scary terms that both Trump and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in have not only avoided but basically ruled out. First, said Bolton, there was “the possibility of regime change in North Korea.” And then, he said, “At some point military force has to be an option.”
Frankly, those are measures that most people in Washington and Seoul would rather not consider. Kim may be a ruthless dictator, harsh to his own people, willing to kill anyone who dares defy him, including his close relatives, but nobody wants to go to war to bring about a change in North Korean leadership.
Bolton was particularly critical of Trump’s decision to do away with joint military exercises with South Korean forces, and he lamented “the very serious deterioration of alliance capabilities” as a result of South Korea’s differences with Japan. He also noted that North Korea, besides threatening the U.S. and the region, may also be selling its technology to other nuclear wannabes.
He did not have to attack his former boss by name to make clear how benighted is his policy. Kim is going to have to fire the first shot, the opening salvo in a shooting war, before anyone fires back.