North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un sent mixed messages in his New Year’s Day address, falling back on the saber-rattling rhetoric that has characterized his regime while offering what sounds like a hand of tentative friendship to his foes in the south.
“The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk,” Kim said. “This is reality, not a threat. This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment. These weapons will be used only if our society is threatened.”
On the other hand, Kim also spoke of a détente between his isolated country and South Korea, hoping that Pyongyang could compete in Seoul’s Winter Olympics. “North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to show unity of the people,” he said, “and we wish the games will be a success.”
Somewhat surprisingly, South Korean leaders appear open to starting a dialogue about the North’s participation. President Moon Jae-in has previously welcomed the notion of Pyongyang joining the games, telling NBC News that the Olympics “will be able to promote the peace between North and South Korea and become an Olympics for peace.”
Not everyone is optimistic about North Korea suddenly abandoning their war drums in favor of peace, however. In an interview with ABC News, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said that the U.S. was “closer to a nuclear was with North Korea” than ever before and that the opportunities for effective diplomacy were essentially gone. Mullen said that Trump’s warnings to the regime were unlikely empty talk. “I’m just more inclined to see over time that the rhetoric seems to be where the President is,” he said.
In an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham appeared to agree. He said that this was the perfect year for the U.S. to finally put the screws to the Kim regime…one way or the other.
“We’ve got a chance here to deliver some fatal blows to some really bad actors in 2018. But if we blink, God help us all,” Graham said. “2018 is going to be the year to deny North Korea the capability to hit the homeland. Sanctions will never work completely without the threat of credible military force. How do you change a man’s behavior who’s willing to kill his own family, torture his own people to stay in power?”
No one – not even Graham – wants to see a full-fledged nuclear war break out between the U.S. and North Korea, but Mullen is right when he says that the doors to diplomacy are nearly closed. Kim Jong Un has yet to put on the table an acceptable deal through which he would be willing to put away his nuclear ambitions and, even if he did, the regime has shown throughout the years that it is not to be trusted.
Can a first-strike approach contain the threat without turning the Peninsula into so much charred ash? Can the U.S. military put an end to Kim’s nuclear arsenal without setting fire to a much longer and more dangerous fuse? These are the questions that weigh heavily on President Trump as we head into the new year.