All the elements of the North Korean nuclear crisis — the relentless drive by Kim Jong-un to assemble an arsenal, the propaganda and deception swirling around his progress, the hints of a covert war by the US to undermine the effort rather than be forced into open confrontation — were on vivid display last weekend.
There was the parade in Pyongyang’s main square with wave after wave of missiles atop mobile launchers, intended to convey a sense that Kim’s program is unstoppable.
Then came another embarrassing setback, a missile test that failed seconds after liftoff, the same pattern seen in a surprising number of launches since former US president Barack Obama ordered stepped-up cyber- and electronic-warfare attacks in early 2014.
Finally, there was the test that did not happen, at least yet — a sixth nuclear explosion. It is primed and ready to go, satellite images show.
What is playing out, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.”
However, the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up, as US President Donald Trump and his aides have made it clear that the US will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Kim so close to his goals.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said repeatedly that “our policy of strategic patience has ended,” hardening the US position as Kim makes steady progress toward two primary goals: Shrinking a nuclear weapon to a size that can fit atop a long-range missile and developing a hydrogen bomb with up to 1,000 times the power than the Hiroshima-style weapons he has built so far.
While all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise — for starters, then-US president John F. Kennedy dealt with the Soviets and then-Cuban president Fidel Castro in a perilous 13 days in 1962, while the roots of the Korean crisis go back a quarter-century — one parallel shines through.
When national ambitions, personal ego and deadly weapons are all in the mix, the opportunities for miscalculation are many.
So far, Trump has played his hand — militarily, at least — as cautiously as his predecessors: A series of Situation Room meetings has come to the predictable conclusion that while the US can be more aggressive, it should stop just short of confronting the North so frontally that it risks rekindling the Korean War, nearly 64 years after it came to an uneasy armistice.
Still, the standoff has grown only more volatile. It pits a new president’s vow never to allow North Korea to put US cities at risk — “It won’t happen!” he said on Twitter on Jan. 2 — against a young, insecure North Korean leader who sees that capability as his only guarantee of survival.
Trump is clearly new to this kind of dynamic, as he implicitly acknowledged when he volunteered that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) had given him what amounted to a compressed seminar in Chinese-North Korean relations.
He emerged surprised that Beijing did not have the kind of absolute control over its impoverished neighbor that he insisted it did last year.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” he said. “It’s not what you would think.”
Trump’s national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, gave voice to the difficult balancing act on North Korea on Sunday.