During an appearance CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley admitted something that most of the international community – perhaps including Kim Jong Un himself – has known for weeks: The United Nations Security Council has just about reached the limit of its ability to economically punish North Korea.
Responding to a question by CNN’s Dana Bash about whether President Donald Trump’s famous “fire and fury” remark was an empty threat, Haley insisted that the US has held back out of a sense of “responsibility.” But now that diplomatic solutions appear to be dwindling, she would be “perfectly happy” handing the situation off to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the source of some of the US’s harshest rhetoric against North Korea. Mattis, Haley said, would “take care of it.”
“What we’re doing is being responsible where North Korea is being irresponsible and reckless. We were being responsible by trying to use every diplomatic possibility that we could possibly do. We’ve pretty much exhausted all the things that we could do at the Security Council at this point.”
“I said yesterday I’m perfectly happy kicking this over to General Mattis because he has plenty of military options. So, I think that the fire and fury - while he said this is what we can do to North Korea - we want to be responsible and go through all diplomatic means to get their attention first. If that doesn’t work, General Mattis will take care of it.”
At least one member of the Trump administration, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, has admitted that the White House doesn’t have a viable military strategy for North Korea where “ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons.”
But the “all options remain on the table” line has been key to the US’s posturing. Haley reiterated that, should the North strike the US or its allies, “[it] will be destroyed.”
“You’d have to ask the President what ‘fire and fury’ meant. If the US has to defend itself, or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed. We don’t want that. Something is going to have to be done. We’re trying every other possibility that we have but there are a whole lot of military options on the table.”
However, Haley did praise the latest round of UN sanctions, ignoring the fact that the US had to capitulate on several of its demand – including cutting off the North’s oil supply and its trading partners - to win the support of Russia and China.
“The facts are the facts. The first sanctions bill that was the largest ever that we had done to North Korea was $1 billion and was a punch in the gut. This one, which we passed in a week, was $1.3 billion and that didn’t count the reduction of 30% of the oil which was made up of 55% reducing their diesel and gasoline that they use to move the missiles. You take that with the elimination of joint ventures and the laborers which we consider modern day slavery that total 90% of North Korea’s, it is being cut off. We have economically strangled North Korea at this point.”
“I think everybody in the international community sees what a big deal it is and the biggest deal is enforcement. North Korea is already feeling the pinch. It’s the reason you see them reacting the way they are. This wasn’t just a hit to North Korea, it was a hit to China - they have to take a hit when they do 90% of North Korea’s trade.”
The administration has been repeating the same line for months, yet nothing has been done. Of course, the North Korean conflict has the dynamics of a geopolitical Mexican standoff – that’s what makes it so difficult. At least the regime knows that if it were to strike the US or one of its allies, it would trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – not to mention a massive counterattack by the US. Such a move would be tantamount to suicide; the regime knows this, and the public does, too. The latest poll shows most Americans believe war is unlikely, a sentiment that has been clearly conveyed by the financial markets.
But still, how much more progress can Kim make toward achieving his goal of obtaining a weapon powerful and accurate enough to strike the US before the generals who Trump surrounds himself with convince their leader that the time for action has arrived?