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Playground taunts will not defuse the North Korea crisis

Eugene Robinson on

WASHINGTON -- This is what we dreaded. Some international crisis was bound to flare up, and President Trump would make it worse. Now we can only hope that the mature adults surrounding him are able to cool things down.

Trump probably thought it was oh-so-clever to answer North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's nuclear provocations with a taste of the dictator's own apocalyptic language, threatening "fire and fury like the world has never seen." It sounded like a playground taunt, reflecting the president's emotional immaturity. On Thursday, Trump said that maybe those words weren't "tough enough." Soon these two nuclear-armed leaders may be trading insults about the size of each other's hands.

The "fire and fury" line was "improvised," meaning Trump failed to warn anyone about it beforehand -- not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, not Defense Secretary James Mattis, not chief of staff John Kelly, not national security adviser H.R. McMaster, not U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Wish these five officials well, because they stand between us and unthinkable disaster.

It is possible that "fire and fury" was, in Trump's mind, a bit of strategy. Perhaps he wanted to come across as a dangerous madman. If so, he succeeded in unnerving Americans and our allies -- but not, apparently, the North Koreans.

Ironies abound. Before Trump's intervention, his administration was actually doing pretty well in orchestrating a global response to North Korea's development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Haley managed to get the U.N. Security Council to approve tough new sanctions, which meant she had to win cooperation from China and Russia -- a real diplomatic achievement.

Moreover, Trump's bombast may even have occasioned high-fives in Kim's inner circle. Kim has long sought direct talks with the United States as a way of showing the North Korean people his exalted status among world leaders. A back-and-forth exchange of rhetoric fills the bill.

Dealing with this crisis will require patience and realism, both of which Trump totally lacks.

There is no quick solution. If there were, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama would have implemented it long ago. A U.S. military strike could cost millions of lives in South Korea and perhaps many thousands in Japan. Our nation, under Trump, would become an international pariah. We would have the blood of many innocents on our hands.

The reality is that Kim doesn't want to conquer the world -- or provoke a U.S. attack that could end his regime. He wants to remain in power. He also dreams of someday reuniting the Korean Peninsula under his own leadership, but that is a much longer-range goal. Right now, his imperative is survival.

By developing nuclear weapons and advanced missile technology, Kim sought to ensure that he never faces the fate of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Having gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain this insurance policy, he is not likely to give it up. Ever.

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