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North Korea won't be swayed by mere bluster

As recently as July, President Donald Trump blasted his predecessor for drawing a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria that he failed to back up to Republican’s liking. Now, the current president is playing a far more dangerous version of that same strategy with North Korea by threatening all kinds of actions from a “massive military response” to cutting off trade with any country that does business with the regime. Kim Jong-un isn’t buying it. His nuclear testing continues. And China and Russia don’t appear to be impressed either.

Worse, whatever strategy President Trump is pursuing (and “strategy” is likely too generous a word, given the lack of coherence to date) it clearly isn’t in concert with U.S. allies in the region including, most alarmingly, South Korea. Indeed, South Korea appears to be on Mr. Trump’s personal least favored nation list, as he’s apparently considering withdrawing from the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, closing the door to our seventh largest export market. Word leaked out about that particular move just about the same time North Korea was bragging about testing a hydrogen bomb.

Does any of this make sense? Even if this has all been done strictly for domestic consumption and playing to key elements of the president’s political base who crave hot apocalyptic rhetoric in the morning and maybe a heaping plate of bombastic America First protectionism by afternoon, that seems doubtful. South Korea is an important trade partner for heartland farmers, including cattle ranchers and dairy operators in states like Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana, all of which are key elements of the Trump coalition, and attacking South Korea at this crucial moment doesn’t help Mr. Trump’s messaging with North Korea. The strategy appears counter-productive any way you look at it.

Why is President Trump so disinterested in diplomacy and working with U.S. allies? It was South Korean President Moon Jae-In who pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin to cut off crude oil shipments to North Korea on Wednesday during an economic summit in Vladivostok — apparently to no effect. But at least he sought a dialogue. Mr. Trump seems to think he’s owed help by Chinese President Xi Jinping because they shared some “beautiful” chocolate cake last April. China wants stability on its borders, period, and its president is likely smart enough to realize that his country has too much economic leverage on the U.S. to believe Mr. Trump would ever cut off trade and embrace economic recession simply to get diplomatic help with China’s problem neighbor.

We’ve observed before that there are no good answers for North Korea, but we should also have noted there are bad ones. Distancing ourselves from South Korea, substituting bluster and saber-rattling for sound military strategy, and generally being all over the map when it comes to a subject as serious as nuclear proliferation can make a bad situation worse. In the end, Kim Jong-un will simply have exposed the United States as a paper tiger and one that’s been fruitlessly chasing its tail to boot. What message does that send to the world’s worst dictators and human rights violators? What confidence will our allies have in our resolve and rationality?

“Talking is not the answer,” Mr. Trump tweeted one week ago. But how would he know? There’s been precious little diplomacy going on, at least not in public view. That’s not to suggest North Korea’s dictator deserves sympathy or respect; he doesn’t. There are no more dangerous states or craven dictators around. But since the U.S. has no attractive military options, finding common ground is the only viable approach left. Mr. Kim appears driven chiefly by a desire to remain in power, not to launch World War III. Surely, there is a path to de-escalation somewhere out there.

Time and time again, President Trump has demonstrated a penchant for bluster and a disdain for presidential restraint, yet North Korea cries out for more of the latter and less of the former. Is Mr. Kim who is “begging for war” as Nikki Haley claims, or is he begging for a U.S. misstep such as a break with South Korea? Diplomacy may not be Mr. Trump’s cup of tea, but a steady hand is what the world needs at the wheel right now, not a back and forth of threats that could escalate too easily into something far worse.

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