The United States has beaten its head against the wall of North Korea for more than 70 years, and that wall has changed little indeed as a result. The United States, meanwhile, has suffered one headache after another.
Over the last several weeks, the head banging has intensified. North Korea has tested a couple of possible intercontinental ballistic missiles. In response, Donald Trump has threatened that country with “fire and fury,” one-upping the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang. And North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is debating whether to fire a missile or two into the waters around the American island of Guam as a warning of what his country is capable of doing.
Ignore, for the moment, Trump’s off-the-cuff belligerence. Despite all their promises to overhaul North Korea policy, his top officials have closely followed the same headache-inducing pattern as their predecessors.
Threaten that all options are on the table? Check.
Try to twist China’s arm to rein in its erstwhile ally? Check.
As Trump flirts with the same default position of “strategic patience” adopted by the Obama administration, two other options beckon: talk or attack.
So far, the prospects for negotiations have been rather dim. True, Trump has directed some backhanded compliments at Kim Jong-un (a “smart cookie”) and broached the possibility of talking person-to-person with the North Korean leader. Back-channel discussions with that country’s UN mission in New York have made modest headway over the last several months on issues like the detention of American citizens. But President Trump is, by nature, erratic, and a purposefully understaffed State Department and distinctly under-informed National Security Council are not exactly firing on all diplomatic cylinders.