As he prepares for possible talks with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about controlling the North’s nuclear weapons program, President Trump is facing his most complicated national security challenge so far. He has made the task far harder by threatening to blow up the only other recent deal to control a nuclear program, with Iran.
.. Now consider North Korea, with 20 to 60 nuclear weapons, and facilities for producing plutonium and enriching uranium, many of which are hidden.
Mr. Trump has insisted on the North’s complete and verifiable denuclearization. And, by all indications, he wants it done immediately. Yet by threatening to abrogate the Iran deal and reimpose sanctions Mr. Trump has added to the challenge of making that happen.
.. He has claimed, without a shred of evidence, that Iran is out of compliance
.. and has complained that Iran is still building ballistic missiles, arming Hezbollah and supporting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. None of these concerns were supposed to be prevented by the deal.
.. He has demanded that Britain, France and Germany fix what he calls “flaws” in the pact by May 12, presumably so he will have someone else to blame when it falls apart.
.. The president, and his new hard-line team of national security advisers, may think that walking away from the Iran deal will persuade Mr. Kim of his toughness and his determination to secure terms that go far beyond those reached with Iran. More likely, Mr. Kim will see it as proof that the United States cannot be trusted to stick to its commitments and will be reluctant to reach any agreement.
.. A serious negotiation with North Korea would include Mr. Trump pressing Mr. Kim to freeze nuclear and missile testing, halt the production of nuclear weapons fuel and the deployment of nuclear weapons and put an Iran-like verification system in place.
.. But why would Mr. Kim agree to any of that if the Americans walk away from the Iran deal? Why would Mr. Kim, or any future adversary for that matter, assume Mr. Trump is negotiating in good faith?
.. Mr. Trump could contribute in an unprecedented way to international peace and security by engaging with Mr. Kim. That possibility will be squandered, though, if the American president escalates a manufactured nuclear crisis with Iran at the very time he is trying to defuse one with North Korea.
John Brennan, the former head of the C.I.A., estimates the chance of a war with North Korea at 20 to 25 percent.
Joel S. Wit, a Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University, puts it at 40 percent.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the odds may be somewhere around 50/50.
.. Almost no expert believes that sanctions will force Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons or halt his missile program. That puts us on a collision course, for North Korea seems determined to develop a clear capacity to target the U.S. with nuclear weapons
.. the White House hints that it would rather have a war than allow the North to become a nuclear threat
.. Tammy Duckworth, a former military pilot who is now a Democratic senator from Illinois, says that from what she hears, the chance is greater than 50/50 that the president will order a strike.
.. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, has said that Trump told him he’d choose a war with North Korea over allowing it to continue on its course.
.. “There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” Graham told the “Today” show, relaying a conversation with Trump. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here — and he’s told me that to my face.”
Graham said that if North Korea continues to test intercontinental ballistic missiles, a war is “inevitable.”
.. Eerily, on my last visit, North Koreans repeatedly said that a nuclear war with the U.S. was not only survivable but winnable.
The U.S. must now choose among three awful options:
- A “freeze for a freeze” deal, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be pursuing;
- Long-term deterrence, just as we have deterred North Korea for decades from using its chemical and biological weapons;
- A conventional war that might escalate into a nuclear exchange.
.. North Korea may also inflame the situation with provocations at any time, such as firing a long-range missile into the sea near Guam, or conducting an atmospheric nuclear test that would send radioactive fallout drifting toward the United States.