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Let’s get real on North Korea

August 13, 2017

The week’s news was dominated by President Trump’s verbal saber-rattling with North Korea. Except that these weren’t swords being waved by Trump and Kim Jong Un: They were nuclear warhead-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the problem isn’t Trump’s rhetoric. It’s Kim’s actions — and China’s.

Since July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was tested in the desert of New Mexico, the civilized world has worried what would happen if a certifiable madman got his hands on the bomb. The jokes making the rounds on social media and among late night comedians is that Trump’s 2016 election brought this crisis to the fore. That’s not humorous to me for the simple reason that the murderous impulses of Kim Jong Un, however buffoonish a figure he cuts, are neither funny nor hypothetical.

A 2014 United Nations dossier of his regime’s crimes against humanity runs 372 pages. “I have been a judge for a very long time and I’m pretty hardened to testimony,” said Australian magistrate Michael Kirby. “But the testimony … brought tears to my eyes on several occasions.”

One North Korean refugee told U.N. investigators that Kim personally involved himself in the desecration and disposal of murdered political prisoners. Their bodies were tossed on a cart and driven away to be incinerated and the ashes used for fertilizer.

In February 2016, a South Korean think tank reported that Kim Jong Un had ordered the execution of some 340 North Koreans, many of them members of his own family — for infractions ranging from disagreeing with Kim’s forestation policies to “slouching” at public events. The capricious nature of these death sentences beggars belief: Those killed include a manager of a turtle farm who explained to Kim that turtles had died because of power outages and food shortages; four musicians in a band favored by his former wife; a widow who protested the execution of her husband.

Last summer, the Obama administration placed Kim and 10 of his top henchmen on a “blacklist” that prohibits U.S. companies or individuals from doing any business with them.

“Under Kim Jong-Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people,” said Adam Szubin, acting Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

This is not new: Kim is the son and grandson of dictators who ran the world’s most horrific police state. What is new is that the third version of North Korea’s monster has nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Events came to head this week because of two events: a new round of U.N. sanctions and an Aug. 8 Washington Post article revealing that North Korea has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles.

After a decade of research, North Korea conducted its first successful nuclear bomb test in October 2006. By September 2016, it detonated a bomb the size of the device dropped on Nagasaki. Concurrently, the regime has poured money into missile technology. A July 28 ballistic missile traveled more than 2,000 miles into space. If it had been fired at a flatter trajectory — an easy adjustment to make — Chicago would have been in reach.

All North Korea’s military scientists have to do now is perfect their weapon’s triggering mechanisms and they will have 10 to 12 working ICBMs. How do we know they’re thinking of targeting the United States? Because they keep saying so. At a regional Asian forum Monday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho warned that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and recent ballistic tests are a “stern warning to the U.S. [against] believing that its land is safe across the ocean.”

Referring to the U.N. sanctions, he added that North Korea “will make the U.S. pay dearly for all the heinous crimes it commits against the state and people of this country.”

These were the threats that prompted Trump’s Wednesday “fire and fury” tweet. Thursday, as the White House was besieged by those who wanted him to tone it down — and North Korea announced it was considering a missile strike on Guam — Trump said that his rhetoric “maybe … wasn’t tough enough,” a theme he followed Friday in both a morning tweet (“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded …”) and an afternoon event in Bridgewater, N.J., where he warned Kim “he would truly regret” any attack on Guam.

Some of the questions raised by this back-and-forth are metaphysical. Does threatening a madman work? The more practical question is whether Trump’s gambit can work. He noted, quite accurately, that the diplomatic approach taken by previous administrations has failed. But Trump’s real audience is not Kim Jong Un, it’s Beijing. North Korea is a client state that would not exist without Chinese support. And it’s time to call China to account.

They don’t want an unstable country, or a democratic one, on their borders? Well, this is worse. For decades, the Kim dynasty has starved its own people, kidnapped thousands of foreigners, and practiced ethnic cleansing — aimed at the Chinese. The regime loathes ethnically mixed children, mainly those conceived by men from China, where some North Korean women have sought refuge. When China sends them back, the babies are killed. One witness told U.N. officials that a repatriated woman’s newborn was put in a bucket and hauled away like garbage by a North Korean guard who said that the child “does not deserve to live because it is impure.”

China is not blind to these atrocities. China is complicit in them. And it’s time for China to grow into the role it craves in the world.

When Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, China announced airily that it would take the lead on global warming. Western elites detest Trump so much they parroted that line, knowing it was a crock: China is the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, and isn’t required under that pact to do anything.

But North Korea is all their fault, and Trump is telling the Chinese that they’d better step up and do something about it.

Carl M. Cannon is executive editor and Washington Bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.

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