The Skeptics

America Must Manage North Korea, Not Destroy It

As this summer’s North Korea war crisis winds down, the only serious option for dealing with a North Korea capable of attacking the United States with nuclear missiles is reemerging: adaptation. As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it: “Not every problem can be solved. Some can only be managed . . . It remains to be seen what can be done vis-à-vis North Korea. Managing such challenges may not be satisfying, but often it is the most that can be hoped for.” This is almost certainly correct.

Numerous treatments have established that the military options against North Korea are terrible. Steve Bannon openly admitted this on his way out of the White House: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first thirty minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” That ten million number is exaggerated, but the basic problem Bannon taps—Seoul’s tremendous vulnerability, and the strict limitation that puts on kinetic choices—is well established. It is almost certainly the reason the United States and South Korea have yet to strike North Korea despite decades of retaliation-worthy provocations. Decentralizing South Korea is a long overdue idea to loosen this constraint, but in the short- and medium-term, military options are, in fact, “off the table,” no matter what Donald Trump says.

Talks would be an ideal choice—if anyone really thought at this point that North Korea would negotiate in good faith or could be trusted to follow through. Sure, we should always try. We have nothing to lose if we enter negotiations with the appropriate doubts. But if any observers are harboring notions of a big break-through or a grand bargain—such as the recent Sino-Russian “dual freeze” proposal to halt North Korean nuclear development in exchange for a U.S.-South Korean military exercise halt—they are not paying attention. North Korea’s record of flimflamming agreements is so entrenched, that the only way to restart negotiations would be small, undramatic steps, such as those proposed by former South Korean president Park Geun-hye and current South Korean president Moon Jae-in. And naturally Pyongyang as summarily dismissed those.

There is simply not enough strategic trust—not by a long shot actually—for a big-package deal, and indeed, the United States and South Korea rejected the dual freeze proposal almost immediately. Lest one think this stems from unremitting U.S. hostility, consider the Iran nuclear deal, which even the Trump administration is grudgingly cleaving to. The United States will talk to North Korea—indeed the dual freeze might actually be worth considering if we thought Pyongyang would hold to it. The problem is that no one trusts the North to take talks seriously anymore, not even the Chinese.