Eight months ago, Donald Trump proposed a round of burger diplomacy with North Korea’s leader Kim Jongun. He wouldn’t give him a state dinner, he said, possibly in an attempt to sound judicious, but “eating a hamburger at a conference table” would be a good way to open “a dialogue”. At the time, Mr Trump’s words aroused much derision. Everyone with any opinion, informed or not, agreed that it was simply ludicrous to propose a shared burger moment with the reclusive leader of a totalitarian state that is known for much bellicose posturing and some belligerent actions.
Back then, Mr Trump’s words could be dismissed out of hand. He was just an aspiring American president and not expected to win the election. But now Mr Trump is in the White House, Mr Kim has gleefully tested a new intermediate-range ballistic missile and Mr Trump hasn’t mentioned burgers but a fact so painfully obvious it is trite. “North Korea is a big, big problem,” he said.
Unusually for Mr Trump, who throws hyperbole around like it were going out of fashion, this was a gross understatement. Since he came to power, North Korea’s supreme leader has been on a tear about acquiring the nuclear option. In his five years and two months in power, he has ordered 50 missile tests, nearly half of them in 2016. He has also had three nuclear tests; two of them in 2016. His late father, Kim Jong-il, presided over far fewer fireworks — 26 missile tests and two nuclear tests in 18 years.
The latest test raises the stakes considerably. It used solid instead of liquid fuel and this development, experts say, means the North Koreans now have missiles that are mobile and with greater range and power. The mobile launch platform also shrinks the window within which western monitoring systems can detect an imminent launch.
As of now, Mr Kim’s missile could have targeted South Korea and Japan, where about 80,000 US troops are stationed. If it makes good on its threats, North Korea could soon be testing an intercontinental ballistic missile. If successful, it would have the capability to strike the US mainland.
So Mr Trump is right. North Korea is a big, big problem.
The problem is that it is now his problem. As America’s 45th commander-in-chief, it falls to Mr Trump to finally match his strongman talk with sensible and strategic action to defend against the North Korean regime’s threats. But what, if any thing, can he do?
The first thing that can be reliably said is Mr Trump at least knows the type of character he is dealing with. Thirteen months ago, Mr Trump said of Mr Kim “this guy doesn’t play games”. In a somewhat questionable admission of awe for Mr Kim’s ruthlessness, he added, “It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one.”
After Tuesday’s news that the supreme leader’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam may have been assassinated at Kuala Lumpur airport, Mr Trump’s remarks become even more pertinent. Especially as the dead man, who was the eldest son of the late North Korean leader, had been supported by China for years as a reserve successor to Mr Kim in the event his regime falls.
But knowing that the North Korean leader is, in the words Mr Trump has used for other categories of people, a “bad dude” is hardly the same as formulating a plausible plan to deal with him. Is there one?
For all the tough talk that has occasionally come out of western think tanks — attacking North Korean nuclear facilities or even taking out Mr Kim — a military response would not be a solution. Instead, it would plunge the Korean Peninsula into war.
So what else can Mr Trump do? The Chinese would be suspicious of one of the oft-suggested approaches, a new US missile defence system deployed in South Korea. They’re also not likely to take kindly to a campaign of sanctions against Chinese companies that do business with North Korean weapons developers. China has its own reasons for believing that the status quo on the Korean Peninsula is the best of all worlds.
But for everyone else, the risks of allowing Mr Kim to indulge himself in war cries are too great. Back in 2013, Patrick Cronin of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at Washington’s Centre for a New American Security, was warning against the perils of “miscalculation and escalation … if Pyongyang, running out of threats or low-level provocations, were to gamble on a more daring move”. That threat seems more real now.
Clearly, Mr Trump must use his self-proclaimed deal-making skills to persuade China to work more urgently towards taking ownership of — and constraining — one of the world’s most difficult security issues.
And then there is the whole business of being “unpredictable”, a trait by which Mr Trump set such store. Perhaps Mr Kim, an old millennial at 33 and the first North Korean leader to be born after the country’s September 1948 founding, may respond to that. Not burgers at the White House perhaps, but it’s worth noting that during the US election campaign a North Korea-linked, China-based media outlet DPRK Today recommended that Americans vote not for “that dull Hillary but Trump, who spoke of holding a direct conversation with North Korea.”
In the first big test of his presidency, Mr Trump has to win at the art of the deal.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs
On Twitter: @rashmeerl
Originally published at www.thenational.ae.