The North Korean nuclear threat is a hinge moment for the U.S. and China, and for the new international order both nations say they want.

If Washington and Beijing manage to stay together in dealing with Pyongyang, the door opens on a new era in which China will play a larger and more responsible role in global affairs, commensurate with its economic power. If the great powers can't cooperate, the door will slam shut — possibly triggering a catastrophic military conflict on the Korean peninsula.

President Trump's bullying style obscures the extent to which he has tried to marry U.S. policy on North Korea with China's. He has been surprisingly successful. Beijing and Washington have mostly been aligned, as in last weekend's unanimous U.N. Security Council vote in favor of additional sanctions against Pyongyang to punish its continued missile tests.

Washington's diplomatic goal is to encourage China to interpose itself between the U.S. and North Korea and organize negotiations to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. threat is that if China doesn't help, America will pursue its own solution — by military means, if necessary.

Trump has amped up the rhetoric: "They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."

It may be a bluff, but with Trump, you never know. Top U.S. officials understand that a pre-emptive war against North Korea could result in horrendous loss of life and a post-conflict outcome that would be worse for all parties. But when national security adviser H.R. McMaster says that a nuclear-armed North Korea is "intolerable" to Trump, one should assume he means it.

Now comes the moment of nuclear brinkmanship. North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said in reaction to the U.N. vote and Chinese-American calls for talks: "We will under no circumstances put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table." Some diplomats saw ambiguity in the vagueness of Ri's conditions. But many analysts believe that North Korea, rather than stepping away from the edge, is racing toward operational nuclear-missile capability that can strike the U.S, as a matter of self-protection.

Two intelligence assessments have added increased urgency to the crisis. The Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that North Korea has mastered the technology for a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could sit atop a missile that could hit America, according to The Washington Post. A white paper by Japan's defense ministry reached a similar conclusion.

North Korea's rhetoric blasts the United States, but it's China that's being put in an intolerable position by Pyongyang. China has been flashing red lights about the North Korean program for more than a year. President Kim Jong Un's regime responded by conducting its fifth nuclear test last September and continuing its missile tests. Kim's slap to Beijing even included assassinating his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was under Chinese protection.

North Korea's defiance of the U.S. and China is rooted in its ideology of "juche," or militant self-reliance that promotes go-it-alone confrontation.

Among the clearest points of consensus at a recent gathering of the Aspen Strategy Group, basically the foreign policy establishment, was that North Korea provides a "catalytic" moment. If China and the U.S. can find a common path and resolve the crisis peacefully, they will succeed in "modernizing the global order."

And if they fail? If Trump's fiery rhetoric alienates Beijing rather than motivating it? If Pyongyang decides to test its doctrine of self-sufficiency with a roll of the nuclear dice? If Trump becomes the first president since John Kennedy to truly find himself at the nuclear brink? One way or another, the coming months will shape global security for many years ahead.

 

David Ignatius writes for The Washington Post. Contact him at davidignatius@washpost.com.