The most unnerving foreign-policy scare in recent weeks has been the war of insults between President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.
Yet here's the most amazing aspect of Trump's bluster: It risks undercutting the real progress his administration had made in tightening economic sanctions against Pyongyang.
Those sanctions, more than dangerous and childish name-calling, offer the last hope of forcing Kim to bargain away his nukes.
Trump's taunts — from "fire and fury" to his threat to "totally destroy North Korea" – have gone far beyond the stern warnings of his generals. He has hinted that he is considering a preemptive war before the enemy acts or even that he might use nuclear weapons. If he continues in this vein, he could provoke even more North Korean weapons testing.
Two irresponsible leaders are goading each other toward a fatal mistake that could lead to a war that neither wants and could kill tens of thousands of South Koreans and U.S. soldiers.
"North Korea has received the message," says Anthony Ruggiero, an expert on economic sanctions at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "If you continue to ratchet it up, it increases the chances of miscalculation."
"The focus," says Ruggiero, "should now be on robust sanctions that target North Korea's facilitators, including China and Russia." Trump's economic moves against North Korea hold more potential for changing Kim's behavior than slurs or insults.
After North Korea's sixth and most powerful nuclear test Sept. 3, the United Nations imposed new economic sanctions on North Korea, endorsed by both China and Russia. The sanctions were aiming at squeezing the hard currency resources that Pyongyang uses for weapons, and ultimately at forcing the North Koreans back to the bargaining table.
As the U.N. vote revealed, China finally seems fed up with its onetime protégé and neighbor. Beijing appears to be following up on U.N. sanctions, shutting down North Korean companies inside its borders, and – this is a biggie — reportedly ordering Chinese banks to cease conducting business with North Korean entities.
The White House, meantime, has issued a tough executive order that gives the Treasury more authority to go after foreign companies and individuals that do business with the rogue nation (including the option of cutting culpable Chinese banks off from access to the U.S. financial system).
This is the kind of one-two sanctions punch that finally forced Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program. "It was U.N. sanctions and a robust U.S. sanctions campaign that brought Tehran to the table," says Ruggiero. Of course, Trump's push to change or junk the nuclear deal with Tehran will hardly encourage Pyongyang to bargain.
But even if U.N. and U.S. sanctions bite hard and starve North Korea of vital cash and fuel, and even if Trump lets the Iran nuclear deal stand, there are huge challenges to overcome.
The first and gravest is whether Kim Jong Un is willing to contemplate negotiating away his nukes or believes they are the key to his political survival. The North Korean leader has made clear his goal is to get the United States to recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear power, as it finally did Pakistan.
"Every one of our intelligence agencies tells us there is no pressure that can be put on the North Korean leader to get him to stop [his nuclear program]," Republican Sen. Bob Corker said at hearings Thursday on North Korea. He may well be correct.
But Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia, argued that the administration is testing that intelligence assessment by pursuing tough sanctions.
"We all want this to be resolved peacefully," Thornton said. "We think this is the last best chance."
Thornton pointed out that the international community has unified in raising the pressure on North Korea and that the Trump team is focused on changing China's attitude from enabling Pyongyang to seeing it as a liability.
So long as China maintains Kim's economic lifeline, even at a reduced level, the North Korean leader has no reason to negotiate over the denuclearization of his country.
But the Chinese still refuse to cut off most or all oil shipments to the hermit state; Trump pressure notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether Beijing will really crack down on its own banks and on Chinese companies that front for North Koreans. Meantime, Russia continues to employ tens of thousands of North Korea workers (although the U.N. resolution bans hiring new ones).
This will be the test for a president who brags about his vaunted relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. It will also be the test for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was back in Beijing on Friday.
Can the Trump team convince Beijing, and Moscow, that North Korea is so dangerous it must be isolated — and must not be bribed to come to the table? And will the White House finally nominate a diplomatic support team to help out its Korea policy? (Thornton is only an "acting" assistant secretary and there still is no U.S. ambassador to South Korea.)
The test will take time. During this time, more rhetorical rashness by Trump could spur the paranoid Kim to take steps that will lead to military confrontation.