Today's WorldView
Edited by: Max J. Rosenthal and Kazi Awal

The North Korean chessboard: What next for the main players?

Over the weekend, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, claiming it had detonated a thermonuclear bomb for the first time.The regime in Pyongyang has been signaling for months its intent to unveil such a weapon, and American experts are now coming to grips with what was once an “unthinkable” scenario — that North Korea may pose a credible nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland.

On Monday, that dawning reality led Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to describe North Korea as “a global threat.” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said during an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council that the North Korean regime was “begging for war.”

“We have kicked the can down the road long enough,” Haley said as other council members suggested additional sanctions on Pyongyang. “There is no more road left.” But here’s an attempt at gauging where the path ahead may take the actors involved in this geopolitical crisis.

The United States

The Trump administration’s approach, telegraphed for weeks by key figures such as Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, is to exert “maximum pressure” to force North Korea to the negotiating table. But this position has been undercut by President Trump, who fired off a series of bellicose tweets this weekend.

Trump not only raised the prospect of a potentially catastrophic regional trade war but also criticized the new liberal government in South Korea, which hopes for more productive engagement with its northern neighbor. How this helps matters is anyone’s guess.

Trump’s rhetoric is useful in understanding the pronounced split within the White House between those who see the crisis primarily as an opportunity to pressure China, North Korea’s only real ally, and those pursuing a more conventional, if hawkish, strategy to bring North Korea to heel.

Trump, meanwhile, is also reportedly keen on scrapping an existing free-trade deal with South Korea (more on that later in the newsletter), which may in part explain his harsh words for Seoul.

The confused messaging, which now is a running theme of the Trump presidency, somewhat obscures the fact that the United States has a narrow set of options when confronting North Korea. For all the posturing over American “fire and fury,” no one is willing to countenance military action that could lead to hundreds of thousands of South Korean deaths within hours of a first strike.

U.S. officials will focus this week on extending the already tight regime of international sanctions further, possibly seeking to cut oil exports to North Korea and curb Pyongyang’s ability to send cheap North Korean laborers to neighboring China and Russia.

China and Russia

It’s unclear whether Moscow and Beijing would go along with such punitive measures at the Security Council, though neither country ruled out new sanctions on Monday. But both the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the United Nations reiterated that diplomacy and dialogue — not simply sanctions — were essential to calming tensions.

The spotlight is burning bright on China, which has been put in an increasingly awkward position by North Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping is preparing for a vital party congress in October that will cement his political legacy, and the drama next door is rocking the boat at the worst time.

“China has been cornered,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing, to my colleague Emily Rauhala. “I’m afraid of what we are facing now, we are at the stage of a showdown.”

American critics say Beijing could do far more to pressure Pyongyang, including cutting off economic aid. But the Chinese contend that further isolating the North Korean regime would only provoke Kim Jong Un into more destabilizing and unpredictable behavior.

And while the United States and China share the same goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, they are at odds over a range of other issues, including the nature of U.S.-South Korean security ties and ongoing military exercises conducted by the United States and its allies in waters near China.

South Korea and Japan

Of course, no one is more alarmed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests than its U.S.-allied neighbors. For both Japan and South Korea, Pyongyang’s enhanced nuclear threat raises new doubts that the United States can shield their nations from attack.

“If the Americans face a choice between San Francisco and Seoul, they will choose San Francisco,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, to the New York Times.

Soldiers from South Korea's Capital Defense Command take part in a drill in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap via Agence France-Presse)

Soldiers from South Korea’s Capital Defense Command take part in a drill in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap via Agence France-Presse)

After the nuclear test, both countries sought reassurances from the United States and moved to beef up their own arsenals. South Korea said it would conduct a live-fire drill later this month of missiles that could potentially strike North Korean military and nuclear sites, while its defense minister floated the controversial possibility of redeploying American tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula — a move that carries real political and security risks.

As for Trump’s jab about South Korean “appeasement,” it didn’t seem to interfere with his 40-minute phone call on Monday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in which the men pledged to “strengthen joint military capabilities” and “maximize pressure” on Pyongyang. As my colleague Anna Fifield reported, many South Koreans recognize that Trump, while a loose cannon, is still someone they must work with.

“Opinion polls show South Koreans have one of the lowest rates of regard for Trump in the world and they don’t consider him to be a reasonable person,” said David Straub, a former State Department official who dealt with both Koreas, to Fifield. “In fact, they worry he’s kind of nuts, but they still want the alliance.”

North Korea

Then there’s Kim and his regime. North Korea-watchers have puzzled over Pyongyang’s aggressive moves in the past year, which seem to have advanced beyond securing an effective deterrent against potential attack. For North Korea’s brutal leadership, a nuclear arsenal is its main avenue toward global credibility.

“After observing China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the 1960s and watching it stare down America’s ‘policy of hostility and imperialism’ by the early 1970s, the Kim regime seems to believe it can pull off the same trick,” noted nonproliferation expert Joshua Pollack.

Whether that’s possible half a century later is another matter. What Pyongyang does seem to be achieving, though, is a calculated chaos that has the potential of driving wedges between its neighbors. Trump’s angry jabs at South Korea are a case in point, and perhaps only a preview of more to come.

• The crisis along the Burmese border with Bangladesh has grown markedly worse since we wrote about it last week. Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims are suspected to have been killed during a Burmese military offensive targeting supposed extremists. At least 75,000 Rohinyga have fled across the border to Bangladesh, with tens of thousands more marooned in a no-man’s land without adequate food or shelter.

Rights groups and leaders of Muslim countries condemned what some allege to be a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” carried out by Burmese security forces. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese Nobel laureate who now is one of the country’s de facto civilian leaders, has become a magnet for criticism given her conspicuous silence on the plight of the Rohingya. In a letter to her Nobel prize-winning counterpart, Pakistani youth activist Malala Yousafzai condemned Burma’s abuse and neglect of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority deprived of basic citizenship rights by the state.

“Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same,” Yousafzai wrote. “The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.”

• Reports emerged from the White House that President Trump is readying to scrap an Obama-era program that gave young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” temporary guarantees they would not be deported. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program had allowed 800,000 people whose parents, in most cases, came to the United States as undocumented migrants to keep living and working in the United States without fear of deportation. The mooted cancellation of that program stirred outrage and raised the prospect of a new political battle to hit WashingtonMy colleague David Nakamura has more:

“Moderate congressional Republicans, and even some conservatives, suggested that they are open to crafting a legislative deal that could offer permanent legal status to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have been in the country illegally since they were children. Democrats lambasted Trump for his expected decision and called on the GOP to join them to protect the dreamers…

Yet the odds that a sharply polarized Congress could strike a deal — steep in the best of times — are considered especially difficult at a time when lawmakers face a busy fall agenda. Congress is under pressure to raise the federal debt limit, pass a spending bill and approve a defense authorization bill, at a time when Republicans also hope to consider a tax plan and potentially try once again to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

• Ahead of Germany’s federal elections later this month, the main party leaders faced off in televised debates on Sunday and Monday. The two heavyweights, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her social-democrat rival Martin Schulz, sparred on Sunday in a duel that “at times resembled a duet,” as my colleague Griff Witte put it. The next day saw leaders of five smaller parties go at it in a more chaotic encounter.

In the Merkel-Schulz debate, both politicians spoke out against demagogues elsewhere, including Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but refrained from vicious blows against each other.

“On issue after issue — including refugees, the economy and, of course, President Trump — the pair expressed occasional mild disagreement but largely refrained from serious attacks,” reported Witte.

A truck drives between shipping containers at a container terminal in Incheon, South Korea, in 2016. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)</p>

A truck drives between shipping containers at a container terminal in Incheon, South Korea, in 2016. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Another one bites the dust?

For months, President Trump has suggested he’d like to renegotiate — or outright cancel — the U.S.-South Korea free trade deal. Now, my colleagues report, he’s instructed his team to draw up a plan for withdrawal. Although Trump’s associates say he hasn’t made up his mind, they say the decision could come as early as this week.

The trade agreement, signed in 2007, slashed tariffs on 95 percent of goods and strengthened intellectual-property protections. It was celebratedas an “integral part” of the effort to boost opportunities for U.S. businesses and farmers. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that exports to South Korea would grow by $10 billion. The head of a U.S. manufacturing lobby said it would produce “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Except it didn’t quite work. Since the arrangement went into effect in 2012, the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea, America’s sixth-largest goods trading partner last year, has more than doubled. U.S. exports to South Korea fell by $3 billion between 2011 and 2016.

“As tariffs fell, American carmakers griped that South Korean regulators were erecting other barriers,” the Economist explained. “The South Korean government was accused of devaluing its currency for competitive advantage.”

On its face, that looks pretty bad. But experts say the deal isn’t primarily to blame for the deficit. The U.S.-South Korea deal came into effect as trade was slowing around the world. “Without the deal, which slashed tariffs, American goods exports would have been even lower,” the Economist wrote.

And some U.S. industries have benefited tremendously. Beef exports to South Korea, for example, rose 152 percent between 2011 and 2017. U.S. service industries have done well, and Korean companies have invested $23 billion in the United States. That’s more than in the previous 30 years, according to Business Insider.

Experts say that withdrawing completely would lead to big increases on the tariffs levied against products the United States imports from South Korea. That would mean all kinds of everyday goods, from televisions to cellphones and automobiles, would get more expensive. South Korea would probably raise tariffs against U.S. products too, including agricultural products.

It would create diplomatic headaches too, isolating South Korea as tension with North Korea roils. Canceling the trade deal is “likely to strain diplomatic relationships,” Honglin Jian, a research analyst at Credit Suisse, wrote in a note— Amanda Erickson


Journalists watch a televised debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel&nbsp;and Martin Schulz, leader of Germany's&nbsp;SPD party, in Berlin on Sept.&nbsp;3. (John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)</p>

Journalists watch a televised debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s SPD party, in Berlin on Sept. 3. (John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The big news

The German election is now in full swing, or something like it. The big debate on Sunday night between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, her challenger from the Social Democrats seemed to do little to change the race or threaten Merkel’s dominant position. With Merkel seemingly on track to comfortably win a fourth term later this month — her party is polling around 40 percent, far more than any of its rivals — The Post‘s Berlin-based writer Rick Noack is asking Germans to weigh in on the election, the big issues at stake and whether or not the vote even matters to them given the almost-certain outcome. Here’s how to participate or follow along with his coverage:

What is this project?

As Germany prepares to head to the polls, Noack will give readers in Germany and elsewhere the opportunity to follow personal updates from the ground in Berlin via messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Over the next three weeks, he’ll use those services to broadcast daily updates and occasional polls, while also replying to responses from readers.

How it works

Using WhatsBroadcast as our service provider, subscribers can select exactly where they want to receive updates. Updates are available in both German and English on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram. The broadcast list launched on Sept. 4 and runs through election night. Subscribers will be given a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to build a story from scratch at The Washington Post. We will also kick-start discussions around the election and hope to highlight some of them in future coverage.

How can I subscribe?

You can subscribe to receive updates directly to your smartphone here.

If you want to subscribe via WhatsApp, simply add the number shown here as a contact in your phone and send the word “start” to activate the messages.

To subscribe via Telegram, please search for our contact called “WashingtonPostGermanElection_bot” in the app, and text “start” in order to receive updates.

If you prefer to subscribe to updates via Facebook Messenger, please send the word “start” to our Facebook page washingtonpostworld.

As the Trump administration searches for a response to North Korea’s continuing tests, Foreign Policy warns that Pyongyang is trying to drive wedges between Washington and its allies in Asia, while The Post explains why it’s vital to keep America’s ties with South Korea healthy and close. In Germany, a psychologist tells Der Spiegel that the emotions of German voters are running high beneath the placid surface of the election. And in Bangladesh, a local paper urges Bangladeshis to welcome the Rohingya Muslims being forced into their country by persecution in Burma.

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American football is back for a new season, but the biggest touchdown of the weekend took place in Kazakhstan. A Soyuz capsule returned to earth on Saturday, carrying three astronauts back from the International Space Station. One of them was Peggy Whitson, who shattered several American spaceflight records during her 288-day stint in orbit. In addition to being the oldest woman to fly in space and the most experienced female spacewalker, Whitson has now spent more days in space than any other American in history. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

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