Given that North Korea flooded the airwaves and the press during our July 4 rituals—which grow more objectionably militarist every year, I have to say—you know by now that Pyongyang just launched a ballistic missile probably capable of reaching US soil. That was a first, on Tuesday. On Wednesday Kim Jong-un, the North’s 33-year-old leader, made sure his point was clear by asserting that his army’s new-generation ICBM is capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead.
The “North Korean threat” has been by turns on and off our front pages since Donald Trump took office six months ago. Now it is decisively on, in my read. “Strategic patience”—Washington’s euphemism for having no idea what to do—has had its day, as the president and various members of his cabinet regularly declare. An administration that has yet to deploy a single coherent foreign policy in any context the world over now must figure one out.
Tuesday’s launch is not so big a deal as Washington and its media clerks have made it: It is a step, no more, toward intercontinental capability. Kim’s claim on Wednesday is a maybe at best, even if the policy cliques find it convenient to take this one more seriously than others in the past. But there is no time left for dithering or denial: We know now that the danger of a nuclear confrontation between two exceedingly hostile powers is a few years off and drawing closer.
A clearer case of reaping what one sows I cannot think of.
Listening to the broadcast coverage Tuesday—wall-to-wall well into the evening—and then reading the press Wednesday, I was struck by the misconceptions, misperceptions, plain inaccuracies, and harebrained speculations that came across. These, along with the ignorant, belittling prejudices we are incessantly subjected to, are essential to the American position on North Korea. Washington’s case rests on fabrication and omission, in short. In the outer limits of commentary, the Dear Leader has his people enraptured by weird foundational myths and “mystical, magical powers”—this shard of Orientalism from someone who has been no closer to the North than the Potomac’s banks. Kim’s generals want to invade the South and drive the Americans back across the Pacific. And so on.
Chris Hill, a diplomat whom I respected for his efforts to achieve a negotiated solution during the George W. Bush administration, appeared on PBS Tuesday evening to dismiss all thought that the North could feel “surrounded by hostile states that want to do it harm,” as he put it. “It’s a much more aggressive purpose they have in mind.” On the same program Mark Bowden nodded dutifully (and safely): “It’s an offensive weapon,” he said of the new ICBM. Another commentator on another program asserted, “There simply aren’t any feasible diplomatic solutions.” Bowden, a newcomer to all this, nonetheless observes confidently in a piece for The Atlantic, “North Korea is a problem with no solution…except time.” Elsewhere in the same piece he adds with authority, “Right now the best hope for keeping the country from becoming an operational nuclear power rests, as it long has, with China.”