Here's something you can't blame on Donald Trump: North Korea's nuclear weapons program and its latest triumph, launching an intercontinental ballistic missile on the 4th of July.
The Pyongyang regime's atomic-weapons program, and its development of increasingly advanced vehicles to deliver those weapons over ever longer distances, is not a new thing. It's been moving forward, slowly but steadily, for two decades. From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama, American presidents have tried to delay and derail it. All failed.
Two decades ago, the North was still developing a bomb; today, it has the technology, though it's unclear how many bombs it has. It has also built and tested increasingly advanced short-and medium-range missiles, though it's uncertain to what extent it has mastered the difficult trick of mounting a weapon on one.
In January, Mr. Trump tweeted that the launch of a missile able to reach the U.S. – the next big step in the North's military development – "won't happen!" This week, however, North Korea tested a missile believed capable of hitting the nearest part of the United States, namely Alaska. The Pyongyang regime will no doubt next try to increase its missiles' range, to reach beyond Alaska. (What's just beyond Alaska? Canada.)
To make things even more worrisome, the two countries with the greatest ability to pressure North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – neighbouring China and Russia – appear to be mostly looking at this crisis as an opportunity to stick it to the U.S., drive a wedge between America and its closest Asian allies, and diminish American influence in the area.
It wasn't so long ago that Mr. Trump was calling on Beijing to help America, and the world, by bearing down on Pyongyang. It was a reasonable idea – from America's perspective. From Beijing's perspective, however, a problem for America is an opportunity to be exploited.
On Tuesday in Moscow, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin put forward a solution to the crisis: The North should freeze its weapons program – and in return, the U.S. should limit military co-operation with its ally, South Korea. What will China and Russia do to help? Nothing.
Aside from the fact that such a U.S. concession wouldn't be nearly enough for Pyongyang, turning the issue of North Korean nukes into a discussion of how to reduce American influence in the region would sow fear in South Korea and Japan, both of which look to America as a counterweight against Beijing.
The bottom line is that, so far, China and Russia are not treating North Korea as their problem. On the contrary, they are treating it as an opportunity to undermine American power in their backyard.
Is there a way to convince Mr. Kim to back down, and to abandon nuclear weapons, or at least limit the development of new weapons and missiles? It won't be easy. The current American President has less leverage than any of his predecessors – because the North's weapons programs have advanced so far.
Can the U.S. call for United Nations sanctions? It is. But the UN Security Council long ago sanctioned North Korea, including forbidding missile tests of precisely the type just carried out.
In the satirical movie Team America: World Police, a UN weapons inspector warns the North Korean leader that he must allow nuclear inspections – or else.
"Or else, what?" he asks.
"Or else we will be very, very angry with you, and we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are."
That film is more than a decade old, and unfortunately, not much has changed. More UN sanctions wouldn't hurt, but unless China gets strongly behind them, they're unlikely to alter the situation.
Can the world hope for the overthrow Mr. Kim's regime? That's wishful thinking. The Soviet bloc, which collapsed from inside, was a paradise of human freedom compared to North Korea. There is no civil society in the North. None. There is only the state and its subjects. It makes the Stalinist Soviet Union look like Switzerland.
Could the Americans launch a military strike against North Korea? Yes, and Washington and its South Korean ally would win a war – but likely at terrible cost. Because the North has nuclear arms, along with an enormous conventional army, it is highly likely that millions of South Koreans, Japanese and others would die.
The irony is that Mr. Trump's first impulse was right: China can help, and it should. China is the country most able to pressure Pyongyang. And along with Russia, it is most responsible for the existence of the world's most dangerous rogue regime. Absent China's military intervention in the Korean War, and the support it and the Soviets offered the North for decades after, the peninsula probably would now be one unified, democratic country, like Germany. And everyone, including China, would be far better off.