If words were bullets, the crazy fat kid in Pyongyang would have been dead a long time ago, with his ample carcass on display now within a shrine of marble, plaster and tears. But under that goofy haircut there’s a brain that is not so crazy at all.
Words, words, words. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says North Korea is “begging for war,” which suggests that North Korea will get it if the begging continues. “Enough is enough. War is never something the United States wants. We don’t want it now. But our country’s patience is not unlimited.”
President Trump telephoned President Moon Jae-in in Seoul and they agreed that the fat kid’s explosion of a hydrogen bomb, underground or not, is not only a grave provocation, but “unprecedented,” too.
One after another, diplomats of America’s more or less reliable European allies, Britain, France and Italy, renewed demands for Kim Jong-un to behave himself, or else be sent to his room without supper. They demand that he halt his nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile scheme, or else — “else” being more of the sanctions that so far haven’t worked.
Francois Delattre, the French ambassador to the U.N., proposes “new” sanctions by the U.N., implementing the sanctions already in place, and new and separate sanctions that also might not work by the European Union. Words, words, words.
Sebastiano Cardi, the Italian ambassador, repeats the chorus as if he were singing the grace notes in an aria from Verdi: “Pyongyang poses a clear threat challenging the global nonproliferation regime.” Mr. Cardi is chairman of the U.N. North Korean compliance committee, and observes that North Korea is the only country to have tested a nuclear device in the 21st century. Mr. Cardi imagines this might shame the fat kid, but Kim takes it as a compliment. He has the toys that the other kids can only envy.
Japan and South Korea have unique critical concerns, sharing a neighborhood with the villains in the North. “We cannot waste any more time,” says the Japanese ambassador, Koro Bessho. “We need North Korea to feel the pressure, that if they go down this road there will be consequences.”
All true, all to the point, but Kim can count it all as just more yada, yada, yada from those he torments. He has his neighbors, and the lord protector the United States, backed into a corner, and he has never had so much fun. He doesn’t mind being the international pariah. He knows the United States dare not put the American boot with its hobnails on his neck, where it could squash him like a bug on the sidewalk, for fear of inviting massive retaliation on Seoul, killing upwards of a million innocents.
Nikki Haley suggests spreading the pain of sanctions, punishing nations that do business with Pyongyang, whether in contraband food and oil, or textiles, the profitable North Korean export so far untouched by the sanctions in place. Tighter limits on exporting North Korean laborers to other nations have been suggested, too. Much of the money these laborers earn is confiscated by the Pyongyang government, and important to the North Korean economy.
Russia and China, always eager to be helpful, suggest bartering Kim’s nuclear threat against the American guarantee of South Korean national security. Eliminate both and every conflict would be resolved, every rough place made smooth and plain. Both Russia and China know this is unacceptable to both Washington and Seoul, and it’s not a solution offered in good faith, anyway.
Some diplomats, pundits and other speculators argue that since nothing else works, returning to “diplomacy,” that vague and formless cure-all that usually cures nothing and invites only more yada, yada, yada, is the way to go. “Jaw, jaw beats war, war,” as Mr. Churchill said, but jaw, jaw has its limits, too.
Doing nothing is what brought the United States — and its allies — to the present moment. Bill Clinton, distracted by staining Monica Lewinsky’s little blue dress and spending the rest of his attention on the hot pursuit of other passing skirts, imagined that sending groceries to North Korea would transform the Kim family into small-d democrats, eager to make the world a happy place. They took the groceries and continued work on splitting the atom. Barack Obama, itching to reduce America’s size in the world, was always ready to make another speech, but not much else.
No one disputes that the way forward is hard, but the threat of an out-of-control regime armed with nuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them to faraway places, is real and the hour is late. The strategy of three presidential administrations seems fashioned by Mr. Micawber, the Dickens character who could never quite succeed at anything but was always sure that “something will turn up.” Something must, and soon.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.