As Trump nears the threshold of a military crisis with North Korea, he needs to sustain this early intuition — and not be driven into actions that may look tough but would leave every player worse off. The template hasn’t really changed from the Korean War in 1950: North Korea’s aggressive actions bring an American response and then a general war that devastates the Korean Peninsula. The conflict ends in stalemate and at huge cost.
Trump in his first months saw the need for a negotiated halt in North Korea’s program. But he has been pushed toward military options by Kim Jong Un’s reckless continuation of his missile testing — despite China’s efforts to restrain the impulsive young leader. War fever is growing, as in Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (R-S.C.) comment Tuesday that conflict is “inevitable” unless Pyongyang stops testing weapons.
What is wise policy? Even as Trump ratchets up the pressure, he should quietly urge China to take the lead in a diplomatic solution. He should continue to make clear to Beijing that its economic and security interests would be severely harmed if the United States is forced to address the North Korea problem on its own, militarily.
Here’s a suggestion for Beijing: China should invite the other key players — the United States, Japan, South Korea, perhaps Russia — to gather in New York during the U.N. General Assembly meeting for talks about how to handle the North Korea problem. The model would be the “P5+1” group that sponsored the Iran nuclear talks. China was an observer back then; this time it would be the convener. Xi Jinping’s global status would be enhanced as he heads toward this fall’s big party congress that will shape his future as president.