It feels almost normal around here. The sun is shining, spring is near, and the top story today was not about Russia. Today’s big news is that Rex Tillerson, our strong but silent Secretary of State, made headlines during his East Asia trip. Passing from Tokyo, through Seoul, in route to Beijing, Tillerson took aim at the world’s blackest sheep – The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. So much for those Americans who complain we don’t have a democracy anymore. If the Hermit Kingdom has one, well then, so do we.
Now, Junior, Behave Yourself
North Korea is officially the world’s bad actor – even though it has not acted much. It’s detonated nuclear bombs, and it’s built ballistic missiles. The missiles, not so much, keep falling into the water, but one day they’ll get that figured out. When they do, they plan on lobbing one of those babies across the Pacific right at us. In the meantime, California, itself in breakaway mode, is ramping up its own anti-missile shield to redirect any incoming to the Mojave Desert – or Utah.
America’s top diplomat does not intend to wait for Kim-Jong to get his load on. Old Tex Tillerson is aiming his Peacemakers right there into the heart of downtown Pyongyang. He announced at a joint press conference in Seoul with South Korea’s Foreign Minister that the era of Strategic Patience is over.
Losing Strategic Patience
“If [the North Koreans] elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, [the military] option is on the table.” In the world of nuclear haves and have-nots, there are two strategies of dealing with atomic wanna-bes. One is imminence – striking against a country when their nuclear program is about to reach operational level. The other is preemption – taking action before operational level is reached. Preemption is tricky, though. Only Israel has played the preemption card in bombing Iranian nuclear facilities when the program was in its infancy. How soon is too soon; or soon enough?
Strategic Patience, the policy formed by the Obama administration, was an attempt to draw a third position between the two. Obama began his Presidency looking for a diplomatic resolution with North Korea, who responded to his outstretched hand by setting off a nuclear test and a multi-stage rocket launch. Goodbye, Era of Good Feelings. Obama countered with sanctions and censure by the United Nations. It’s said that Dear Leader hung up the Censure Resolution in his workshop alongside his chemistry set.
Around the Water Cooler
According to the latest chatter, North Korea is preparing for another round of nuclear tests, which bring Tillerson to his first High Noon moment. The problem of course is that this is no mano-a-mano contest. The U.S. is defending South Korea, an economic giant. China, Tillerson’s next stop on the whistle tour, is North Korea’s only trading partner. Japan, which is in the line of fire, has issues with both North Korea and China, and it’s not looking for a fight. Which explains why Tillerson held back his announcement until he left Tokyo and before traveling to Beijing.
Rex and Wang Play for High Stakes
Beijing does not like the idea of the U.S. and South Korea carrying out exercises in East Asia, so it surely won’t like the idea of military action or involuntary dismantling of the North Koreans. The Chinese have warned the U.S. about the accelerating hostilities but has been unwilling to act. Officially, if favors talks (how Obama-like!) and will make concessions to keep its ally in line. But as Tillerson has pointed out, strategic patience is like slow-boiling a frog. By the time you know you’re in the hot pot, it’s too late. Besides, China won’t benefit from opening North Korea It does fine having a captive client state on its doorstep.
North Korea is the kind of place that starts wars bigger than itself. Think Serbia for rabid nationalism, a history of violence and a penchant for self-destructiveness. The U.S. and China are smart enough to realize that North Korea could strike a match just as the Serbians started World War I by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. The two superpowers must reach agreement on how to stop the Sun of Socialism from joining the nuclear fraternity without blowing everyone else up.
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