As President Donald Trump has implicitly conceded, his approach to the North Korean nuclear threat is failing. It was all about putting the responsibility on China to force the North to abandon its program, which has grown increasingly and alarmingly formidable and now includes as many as 21 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. "I am very disappointed in China," he tweeted over the weekend.
Trump was driven to play the blame game after North Korea on Friday tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that, for the first time, appeared capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States. It marked the second ICBM launch in 24 days and the kind of technical achievement that U.S. presidents said the country could not tolerate. Trump had insisted in early January that such a missile "won't happen."
Well, it did happen — twice. And while experts question how soon a reliable nuclear weapon can be fired on a missile, it is wise to assume that North Korea's program will continue to advance, putting the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan at greater risk, unless a way is found to break the present cycle of threats and testing.
There is no underestimating the difficult spot in which Trump finds himself. There is no getting away from the fact that China can and should do more to pressure the North to curb its nuclear program. The Chinese don't want Pyongyang to have nuclear weapons. But their greater fear is that North Korea's government could collapse, sending millions of refugees fleeing across the border and effectively handing power over the peninsula to South Korea, which in turn means putting a U.S. ally on China's border.
Trump needs to face the reality that he cannot solve this crisis by proxy, that he must intervene directly and that he should do so soon. Tensions, already high, could increase this month when U.S. and South Korean forces hold their annual military exercises, which the North Koreans take as a sign that the allies want to overthrow their government.
What would such direct intervention entail? For starters, Trump should drop the bluster and dispatch Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or some other high-level envoy to Pyongyang to explore whether there is any basis for negotiations.
The administration has said North Korea must send a "tangible signal" that it will abandon its nuclear program before talks even begin. This is not a realistic basis for negotiation. The North's program is advanced and its leadership deeply distrustful. Talks should begin without preconditions; what's most urgent is to halt the program's progress.
Are the North Koreans even interested in talks? U.S. experts who study the issue say there have been repeated signals in recent weeks that they are. That can't be known, however, unless someone goes and asks them.