Blogs: The Skeptics

Trump's UN Speech Was a Win for North Korea

The Skeptics

Presumably President Donald Trump believed he was sticking a rhetorical dagger in North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s heart by calling the latter “Rocket Man.” But what greater compliment could there be for the leader of a small, impoverished, and isolated nation than being recognized the U.S. president as joining the global superpower in possessing intercontinental missiles and nuclear weapons? By the president’s own words Kim is now one of the “Big Boys.”

President Trump also threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” In doing so he became the mirror image of the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, blustering and swaggering while spewing threats far and wide. President Trump isn’t bad at the game, but the DPRK’s rulers have had far more practice and are without peer. Kim can always trump Trump in this way.

What a War Between China and Japan Would Look Like

And the president’s warning had two other counterproductive effects. The first is justifying the North Korea nuclear program. Kim, like his father and grandfather, shows no signs of being suicidal: he wants his virgins in the here and now, not hereafter. His principal concern, other than maintaining domestic control, is regime preservation against U.S. pressure. Nuclear weapons are the best means to ensure that he does not suffer the fates of Saddam Hussein, Muammar el-Qaddafi, and other foreign dictators who ran afoul of Washington. Creating a nuclear deterrent is Pyongyang’s preferred tool to prevent America from destroying the DPRK—at least assuming the president is as rational as the Supreme Leader.

President Trump’s rhetoric also was a propaganda gift to the North. One can imagine North Koreans growing a little cynical after being lectured endlessly on the “American Threat.” Now the president has created the perfect sound-clip for use at home and abroad. He didn’t even bother to distinguish between the Kim dynasty and North Korean people or nation. From the DPRK’s perspective, he’s apparently planning on wiping out everyone and everything.

What a War Between NATO and Russia Would Look Like

The problem is not just that there is no filter between the president’s gut and mouth. He also knows little of the complexity of the Korean standoff. Thus, he imagines that all he has to do, in contrast to the calm, cool, and collected President Barack Obama—who obviously is responsible for most if not all of the world’s ills—is match Kim Jong-un insult for insult. Put a little scare into the chubby if cherubic looking dictator, and the latter will rush to surrender the weapons Pyongyang has spent a quarter century or more developing.

The president can dream on. Kim, like his father and grandfather, already is scared. Which is precisely why he is developing ICBMs which are capable of striking the United States. He wants to deter American military action. He isn’t going to launch a crazed suicidal attack on the United States. He’s going to threaten to respond with nuclear weapons to any attack on the DPRK.

It should be obvious by now that there is no simple solution to the “North Korea Problem.” The Kim dynasty is evil, but that doesn’t set it apart from a parade of other dictatorships around the world. The DPRK dictator is responding to a deteriorating international security environment and incentives created by Washington. Nukes are the surest guarantor against military intervention by today’s ever-aggressive hyperpower.

What a War Between America and China Would Look Like

If the president wants to prevent the North from developing nuclear weapons, the starting point is to recognize Pyongyang’s security conundrum. The Republic of Korea has vastly outstripped the DPRK and is backed by the United States. China and Russia are at best frenemies, which would not save the North in the event of another war. Pyongyang is alone in facing overwhelming odds.

The president should drop the bluster and use rhetoric appropriate for the world’s most powerful nation. Rather than issue a cavalcade of military threats which appear empty, make a serious but restrained promise of action, whether retaliation or preemption, in the few narrow circumstances which would warrant triggering the Second Korean War.

Equally if not more important, consider practical steps to demonstrate that Washington is not plotting to liquidate another member of the infamous Axis of Evil. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson assured Pyongyang that the administration had only pacific intentions, but why would Kim put any credit in such a statement? It isn’t even clear that the secretary speaks for his president, let alone a future chief executive. Qaddafi was praised by Bush, feted in Europe, and encouraged by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, only to be tossed overboard by the Obama administration the moment he was vulnerable. Kim might be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have enemies.

Steps that would suggest easing if not abandoning what the North calls Washington’s “hostile policy” include suspending annual U.S.-ROK military exercises, negotiating a peace treaty, and initiating regular government-to-government contacts, including possible diplomatic recognition. The latter should be seen as establishing a channel of communication, not providing a reward. Refusing to talk with the Soviet Union would not have shortened the Cold War.

The United States should also move to disengage militarily from the Korean Peninsula. South Korea long has been capable of expanding its military and defending itself from its vastly poorer adversary. Such a step would sharply reduce the potential for conflict between Washington and Pyongyang. It is America’s participation in the Korean imbroglio that is making the country into a nuclear target. If the North successfully tops ICBMs with nuclear weapons, the risk of a new Korean conflict for the United States will have risen exponentially. Yet there is nothing at stake in the peninsula that justifies Washington’s participation in a nuclear conflict.

Washington also needs to look for alternatives to the present apparent choice between a nuclear North Korea or Second Korean War. One is to encourage the South to develop a countervailing deterrent. A majority of South Koreans back this course. Doing so would allow Washington to drop its “nuclear umbrella” over the ROK and leave the nuclear threats to others. Even more important, the possibility of a South Korean nuke—and a companion Japanese weapon—would get China’s attention. Beijing might seek to be more “persuasive” in halting the DPRK’s program.

Finally, if its other strategies fail, the United States should consider reluctantly accepting a nuclear North Korea, rather like the Bush administration recognized a nuclear India, and relying on deterrence, as America did against Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Washington then should negotiate to freeze the current program. That would, of course, require inspections and verification, and satisfy no one. But far better to face a North Korea with a nuclear arsenal capped at, say, twenty bombs than a North Korea possessing 100 nukes with more to come. Second best still is better than the other options.

The DPRK’s latest tests are unnerving but not new. And they have changed nothing: the North currently is not capable of hitting American cities. It may gain that ability more quickly than once thought, but it remains only a possibility. Contrary to the president’s rhetoric, there is no immediate crisis, and certainly no justification for war.

If the president wants to solve the problem, he will ratchet back his irresponsible rhetoric and stop inadvertently affirming Kim’s nuclear efforts. America is the world’s greatest and most powerful nation. Its leader shouldn’t sound and act like the dictator of a small, impoverished, and deadend state half the world away.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un makes a statement regarding U.S. President Donald Trump's speech at the U.N. general assembly, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 22, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS


What a War Between NATO and Russia Would Look Like

What a War Between America and China Would Look Like

What a War Between China and Japan Would Look Like


Kim Jong Un: What If America Just Assassinated North Korea's Dangerous Dictator?

The Skeptics

Putting Kim six feet underground is only one choice in a set of options that the National Security Council will present to President Trump for his consideration. It may even be a policy option that is so far outside the mainstream that Trump’s national-security aides would disabuse him of studying it further. Reaction from Beijing would be swift and unyielding, and as much as the South Korean and Japanese governments would like North Korea to behave more predictably, it’s not at all certain that Seoul and Tokyo would believe that assassinating the men at the top would achieve that objective.

When the first images of a sarin gas attack streamed into the White House Situation Room, President Donald Trump ordered his National Security Council to come back to him the next day with some concrete options. Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford did just that; after rounds of meetings with national-security principles, President Trump ordered the U.S. Navy to launch fifty-nine cruise missiles on an Assad regime airbase where the gas attack originated.

At the same time, the NSC was putting the final touches on a North Korea policy review that has been an ongoing project for months. Unlike the administration’s deliberations on the Syrian chemical weapons attack, President Trump is giving his national security advisers far more time and a wider degree of flexibility. Before the policy review began, the Wall Street Journal reported in March that Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland directed aides to include “ideas that one official described as well outside the mainstream.”

We now know just how unconventional some of these options are: they apparently include everything from reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea as a show of force and deterrence to assassinating Kim Jong-un and his top commanders. “We have 20 years of diplomacy and sanctions under our belt that has failed to stop the North Korean program,” a senior intelligence official involved with the review told NBC News. Read between the lines and it’s obvious what the overall message from the Trump administration is: North Korea is a problem that has been on Washington’s hot-plate for way too long, so it’s time to shake up the establishment and look for new alternatives.

What a War Between NATO and Russia Would Look Like

There was a time when assassinating a foreign leader was an integral component of America’s national-security toolkit. During the Cold War, leaders who were either insufficiently supportive of U.S. policy goals or in bed with the Soviets were targets for removal. Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Congo’s Patrice Lumumba the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo and Guatemala's Jacobo Árbenz were all on the CIA’s hit-list at one point in time, and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi was a frequent target due to his sponsorship of international terrorism. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan authorized an air strike on Qaddafi’s compound in the hope that he would be in the building. After three months of interviews across the national-security bureaucracy, the New York Times Magazine concluded that “the assassination of Qaddafi was the primary goal of the Libyan bombing” in 1986.

The Cold War, however, has been over for twenty-five years. Killing foreign political officials, an option that was once always on the table, is now generally discouraged and frowned upon. In fact, It’s been U.S. policy since the Gerald Ford presidency to stay far away from anything that would suggest that the United States is a participant, involved in some way or complicit in an assassination attempt. President Ford’s executive order on this is quite clear: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” President Reagan restated—and some would say expanded—that restriction in executive order 12333, which says that “[n]o person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”

Pursuing a policy that would lead to the assassination of Kim Jong-un and the decapitating of the North Korean leadership would therefore be a big reversal from a U.S. policy that has persisted for forty-one years. Policies, of course, can change and presidential directives and executive orders can be modified or rewritten. And there is no statutory prohibition that would prohibit the president of the United States to order a hit on a foreign leader. Although 18 U.S. Code, Section 1116 could be used to prosecute a U.S. person who attempts to kill a foreign leader, this statute only applies if the crime is committed in the United States or the leader is targeted “in a country other than his own.” If President Trump were willing to amend current executive orders on the books, his administration would presumably target Kim Jong-un and not be penalized under the criminal code.

What a War Between America and China Would Look Like

A question that is just as important is whether assassinating Kim or the generals in charge of North Korea’s nuclear program, ballistic missile program, military or intelligence services would be a good policy. We tend to believe that if we just took out the top, bad guy in the regime, all of the other bad guys in that regime will be scared straight, change their behavior and suddenly turn their governments into bastions of human rights and democracy. We’ve had experience with his belief before: several days prior to major military operations in Iraq, Washington lobbed cruise missiles at Saddam and the Iraqi political leadership in the belief that perhaps further war could be avoided. Whether that hypothesis would have played out is unknown because Saddam survived those attacks—it’s comfortable to assume that the Baa’thist leadership would surrender to coalition forces the next day, but it’s just as likely that the war would go on.

North Korea is an entirely different situation than Iraq was in 2003. Kim Jong-un is solidly in power, having killed or marginalized anyone (including his uncle and half-brother) perceived to be even a minimal threat to his control. Unlike Iraq, whose military was demoralized and degraded by the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and by a sanctions regime over the next decade, North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state with ballistic missiles that have the capability to level Seoul quickly and target U.S. bases in the region. Killing Kim and banking on the idea that the regime would change how it does business after seven decades would be a high price to pay if that untested theory proved to be wrong. Because North Korea is such a black-hole in terms of human intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community wouldn’t be able to confidently assess that the man or woman (Kim’s sister, for instance) who replaces Kim wouldn’t be just as vicious or unpredictable. Assassinating a head-of-state is the definition of an act of war, and nobody can accurately guess whether cooler heads in Pyongyang would prevail over those who would be itching to demonstrate strength through retaliation.

What a War Between China and Japan Would Look Like

Putting Kim six feet underground is only one choice in a set of options that the National Security Council will present to President Trump for his consideration. It may even be a policy option that is so far outside the mainstream that Trump’s national-security aides would disabuse him of studying it further. Reaction from Beijing would be swift and unyielding, and as much as the South Korean and Japanese governments would like North Korea to behave more predictably, it’s not at all certain that Seoul and Tokyo would believe that assassinating the men at the top would achieve that objective.

One hopes that all of this talk is more of political gamesmanship to goad the Chinese into cooperating with the United States, and nothing more.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This first appeared in April. 

America May Push Iran Into Becoming the Next Nuclear Crisis

The Skeptics

It’s no secret that the Trump administration is busily building a case to have the United States repudiate the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran. Even when the president grudgingly conceded that Tehran was complying with the explicit terms of the accord, he groused that Iranian leaders were violating “the spirit” of the document. A cynic could easily have pointed out that a key reason why nations spell out the binding aspects of an agreement through written provisions—rather than relying on vague oral comments and handshakes—is that only the written clauses constitute true obligations. Disagreements about the “spirit” or intentions could be endless. The preponderance of evidence indicates that Iran has, in fact, abided by its legal obligations under the agreement.

Unfortunately, administration officials and a vocal flock of hawks in the United States seem determined to sabotage the accord. The latest salvo was the speech that U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivered to the ultra-hawkish American Enterprise Institute on September 5. That address contained a multitude of distortions, all of which seemed designed to build a foundation for the administration to repudiate the agreement. Indeed, if Haley’s comments are taken seriously, a drive appears underway to go beyond that step and make the case for war against Iran.

An increasingly popular line of argument among proponents of a militant policy toward Tehran is that North Korea’s behavior is a harbinger of what the United States will face regarding Iran if Washington does not harden its approach. During an appearance on the Fox News program “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in mid-July, prolific neoconservative author retired Col. Ralph Peters warned that if the United States did not confront Iran now, then it would in a few years encounter the same kind of nuclear crisis with that country as the current nightmare with North Korea. Since Peters previously had recommended U.S. military action against Pyongyang, there was little doubt about what type of confrontation he had in mind.

Peters is hardly alone in making that argument. Hawks openly excoriate the Clinton administration for concluding the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea. Clinton’s naïve decision, they argue, enabled Pyongyang to flout the so-called restraints on its nuclear program, and we now face a much worse situation when that program is far advanced. They emphasize that U.S. leaders must not make the same error by adhering to a similar, fatally flawed, agreement with Iran. The clerical regime in Tehran is carefully watching how Washington deals with North Korea’s defiant entry into the global nuclear-weapons club. If Pyongyang causes the United States to back down, the reasoning goes, Iran will actively pursue the same ambition, regardless of any agreement to the contrary.

To bolster their case, critics of the agreement cite various experts who see a smoking gun in the form of evidence that Iran and North Korea already cooperate closely on both nuclear matters and missile technology. John Bolton, a former ambassador to the UN, has even asserted that if North Korea retains its nuclear-weapons arsenal, along with developing reliable ballistic missiles, Tehran could have the same capabilities “the next day” simply by “writing a check” to Kim Jong-un.

Using North Korea’s behavior as an excuse to trash the nuclear agreement with Iran is at best a dangerously simplistic reaction. Although hawks typically insist that their goal is to replace the current version with a better, stronger one that more effectively reins in Tehran’s supposed nuclear ambitions, at least some hardliners clearly want U.S. military action against Iran. That course would be extraordinarily reckless. Shredding the agreement even without the follow up of preemptive strikes would needlessly escalate tensions throughout the Middle East.

Admittedly, there is a risk that Iran could venture down the same path as North Korea toward the goal of a nuclear-weapons capability. But hawks learn the wrong lesson from Pyongyang’s behavior. Given the way Washington has treated such nonnuclear adversaries as Serbia, Iraq and Libya, North Korea’s desire for a nuclear deterrent is hardly irrational. Belligerent rhetoric coming from influential figures such as John McCain, Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham (and their neoconservative allies) heightens the Kim regime’s paranoia. To a considerable extent, the United States has brought this problem on itself. Explicitly repudiating the goal of forcible regime change toward countries that are on bad terms with Washington might help reduce the incentive of those governments to develop nuclear arsenals.

Finally, even if the United States continues its misguided, sterile policy of isolating North Korea, much less embracing the perilous option of resorting to war, the adverse consequences of adopting the same tactics toward Iran would be much worse. North Korea is an obnoxious little state, but it has little significance beyond its immediate neighborhood. In terms of being an economic power, Pyongyang is a joke, and its political or diplomatic appeal scarcely reaches that level.

Matters are quite different with Iran. Like it or not, that country is a major diplomatic, military and economic player throughout the Middle East—and even into Central and Southwest Asia. As the principal representative of Islam’s Shia branch, Tehran exercises considerable influence in such countries as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. Trying to isolate Iran has been—and will continue to be—an exercise in futility. And launching a military attack on that country would trigger another disastrous war in the Middle East. The course with which the Trump administration seems to be flirting should be avoided at all costs. The president must not listen to the siren call of reckless hawks who have been wrong about so many different issues.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books and the author of more than 650 articles on international affairs.

Image: Reuters

Why Isn't There a Debate about America's Grand Strategy?

The Skeptics

“The United States needs a new set of ideas and principles to justify its worthwhile international commitments, and curtail ineffective obligations where necessary,” argue Jeremi Suri and Benjamin Valentino, in the introduction to their edited volume Sustainable Security: Rethinking American National Security.

“Balancing our means and ends requires a deep reevaluation of U.S. strategy, as the choices made today will shape the direction of U.S. security policy for decades to come.”

Though rarely spelled out in such stark terms, this question would appear to be at the core of America’s grand strategy debate—if such a debate were actually occurring. We should ponder why it isn’t, and therefore why an arguably “unsustainable” strategy persists. (As the economist Herb Stein famously said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”)

I foresaw this problem not quite two years ago. “U.S. foreign policy is crippled,” I warned in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

by a dramatic disconnect between what Americans expect of it and what the nation’s leaders are giving them. If U.S. policymakers don’t address this gap, they risk pursuing a policy whose ends don’t match with the means the American people are willing to provide.

And I concluded as follows:

the military’s roles and missions are not handed down from heaven. They are not carved on stone tablets. They are a function of the nation’s grand strategy...

That strategy must take account of the resources that can be made available to execute it. Under primacy, in the current domestic political context, increasing the means entails telling the American people to accept cuts in popular domestic programs, higher taxes, or both, so that our allies can maintain their bloated domestic spending and neglect their defenses.

It seems unlikely that Americans will embrace such an approach. The best recourse, therefore, is to reconsider our global role, and bring the object of our foreign policy in line with the public’s wishes.

That hasn’t happened. Although public officials and thought leaders should frame strategy as a choice among competing ends (what we seek to achieve), and means (i.e. the resources that we are willing to apply to achieve them), they have stubbornly refused to do so. They have clung to the same strategic goals, and simply hoped that the obvious fiscal constraints would magically disappear.

Given his willingness to challenge the foreign policy establishment, Trump’s upset victory last year might have changed all that. But, so far, it hasn’t. Arguably, it’s gotten worse.

In a recent discussion at the Cato Institute, Valentino observed how the reaction to Trump’s victory had divided into two camps.

One side was gripped with utter horror. A vast array of policy insiders—on both the left and the right—were appalled by the mere suggestion that the United States would revisit any of its international obligations, or abandon long-time allies. Even Barack Obama, who defied the foreign policy establishment from time-to-time, urged the incoming president “to sustain the international order that's expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War.” “American leadership in this world really is indispensable,” Obama explained in a letter to his successor.

Another group of individuals was willing to entertain challenges to the status quo. Though largely appalled by Trump’s antics and rhetoric, they were cautiously optimistic that his rise would stimulate a long-overdue grand strategic debate.

Both sides were wrong. There has been neither a major retrenchment, nor even a debate over whether such a retrenchment is warranted or wise. In other words, Valentino noted, we seem headed for the worst of all worlds: status quo by default.

The window hasn’t closed on a serious strategic debate, but the ball is now in Congress’s hands. Alas, nearly everyone in Congress seems utterly disinterested.

Consider, for example, the stifling of any discussion surrounding a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

This week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) threatened to bring the Senate to a crawl unless it debated a new AUMF, but very few other elected officials are prepared to challenge the president’s authority to wage perpetual war at will. Sen. John McCain went so far as to dismiss Paul’s call for an AUMF debate as a waste of his time.

There is a similar lack of interest in the House. Back in July, GOP leaders blocked Rep. Barbara Lee’s attempt to force an AUMF debate. Although Lee’s proposal won bipartisan support in the House Appropriations Committee, Speaker Paul Ryan’s office called it “an irresponsible measure” that “endangers our national security.”

Speaker Ryan, Senator McCain and others on Capitol Hill who don’t wish to debate the nation’s wars should understand that our military interventions are ineffective precisely because Congress—and therefore the public—is disengaged. The nation fights in many wars that, unlike Korea or Vietnam, don’t get tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers killed. But wars that aren’t worth fighting unless they are cheap and easy might not be worth fighting at all. Indeed, the unwillingness to expend resources on dubious foreign wars is a mark of the public’s collective common sense.

Meanwhile, to the extent that they don’t feel much pain, or suffer any apparent trade-offs, the vast majority of Americans who don’t serve in the military remain rationally ignorant of the wars that don’t obviously cost them anything. In short, the public doesn’t care because Congress has given them little reason to care.

And U.S. foreign policy proceeds as if on autopilot.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.

Image: Reuters

North Korea’s Nuclear Threat Is America’s (Not the World’s) Problem

The Skeptics

Another day, another North Korean weapons test. Kim Jong-un has made the outrageous mundane, even boring. Unfortunately, Pyongyang has to stage ever bigger and more dramatic stunts to shock “the international community.”

Kim has gotten the attention of not only the Trump administration but the American people. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs found a 15 percent increase over last year, to 75 percent, in the share of Americans who view the North Korean nuclear program as a serious threat. He has an unfavorable rating of 91 percent.

However, Kim might not like their response. The vast majority of Americans want to sanction both the North and Chinese companies which deal with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Four of ten back airstrikes on the DPRK’s nuclear facilities. Despite weariness after 16 years of continuous war, almost three of ten would send U.S. troops for the same purpose. That’s about as many as would accept a nuclear North Korea even if it froze its current arsenal.

The popular reaction comes as no surprise. Kim has led a chorus of blood-curdling threats against the U.S. which Americans with little knowledge of the Korean stand-off—and understanding of the likely costs of any war—take seriously. Indeed, Pyongyang indicated that it only intended to threaten the U.S. In August at the ASEAN Regional Forum North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said his nation’s nuclear weapons were aimed at America: “We have no intention to use our nuclear arms against any country except the U.S. if it does not join the U.S.’s military actions against the republic.” He dismissed South Korea and even Japan as merely “following the U.S.”

North Korea’s narrow focus hasn’t stopped the rest of “the international community” from criticizing the North. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg called Pyongyang’s actions a “global threat” requiring a “global response” and, of course, insisted that the latter “includes NATO.”

However, the problem is essentially America’s alone. The Europeans aren’t particularly enthused about defending their neighbors to Europe’s east. The alliance certainly isn’t going to go to war with the DPRK, no matter what happens. No doubt NATO states will back whatever sanctions are imposed by the UN Security Council, but there negotiations are among Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, not Brussels.

No one else much matters. South America, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia aren’t involved. Even Japan is a practical nullity, despite talk about acquiring the ability to preempt North Korean missiles. And the ROK remains too dependent on Washington to take independent action.

Americans should learn more about what they increasingly want to attack and the likely consequences of doing so. When it comes to who threatens whom, Pyongyang likely feels under siege. It faces South Korea, which won the inter-Korean contest, with around 45 times the economic strength. That, in turn, yielded military potential and international influence.

Allied with the South is the global superpower. Although Seoul’s need for an American military shield disappeared years ago, the U.S. maintains bases and troops in the Republic of Korea, and sails its vessels and flies its planes nearby. Moreover, Washington’s nuclear threats go back to the Korean War.

Nor does the North likely see America’s presence as purely defensive. The Kim regime may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have enemies. When I visited Pyongyang in June officials pointed to Washington’s most recent regime change wars. Last month at ASEAN Foreign Minister Ri cited an even longer list of U.S. actions: “While nuclear-armed countries have not been attacked, those who had no nuclear [arms], such as Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Somalia saw their regimes replaced by military invasions and interventions of the U.S.”

One can quibble about the specifics of any particular case, but Washington has created a two-tier world in which nuclear weapons appear to be the surest deterrent to American bombing, invasion, and occupation. Perverse incentives resulting from U.S. policy encourage proliferation by precisely those regimes most hostile to America.

Giving countries such as North Korea a reason to build nukes is bad enough. But the Obama administration’s Libyan adventure expanded on that lesson. As Pyongyang noted at the time, Moammar Ghaddafi agreed to abandon both his missile and nuclear programs. Then, a few years later, the U.S. and several European states used proxies to take him out. NOT SMART!, President Trump might tweet.

Few shed any tears for the Libyan dictator’s demise, but that’s not the point. Washington dramatically demonstrated to the world—most notably anyone on the incumbent president’s naughty list—that the U.S. cannot be trusted to keep a bargain. Or that deals with America come with lots of lawyerly fine print, including a warning that if you give up your most destructive weapons, Washington may take advantage of your weakness whenever convenient.

So the North’s weapons programs are best understood as essentially defensive. Of course, Pyongyang would have no moral qualms about using even nukes in attack. But there is no evidence that Kim or those around him are suicidal. They have concluded, understandably even if wrongly, that regime survival requires a nuclear deterrent to prevent a U.S. attack.

Which suggests a two-part American response.

The first is to try to stop North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. That would be the best outcome, but there’s little reason to expect success. DPRK officials uniformly deny any willingness to trade away their weapons. That could be a negotiating tactic, but the increasingly frenetic pace of both missile and nuclear tests suggests the Kim regime’s determination to develop a workable deterrent while shortening its “window of vulnerability” until a survivable nuclear force is deployed.

The U.S. should pursue sanctions, but not only sanctions. Washington should lower the rhetorical temperature and downplay the threat of military action, which only confirms the Kim dynasty’s nuclear commitment. The U.S. should initiate dialogue without first receiving a North Korean commitment to disarm, which won’t be forthcoming. American officials should talk with their Chinese counterparts about a longer-term solution to the Korean imbroglio, and how to accommodate Beijing’s interests in return for applying greater pressure on its nominal ally. The People’s Republic of China wants neither a failed state nor a united Korea allied with America and hosting U.S. troops on its border.

At the same time Washington should remove the target from the American homeland. The raison d’etre for the U.S.-South Korean alliance long ago disappeared. The ROK has the resources to defend itself and should create whatever forces are necessary to deter a North Korean attack and win any war which might ensue.

Once the North possesses a deliverable nuclear weapon even a conventional Korean conflict would be too dangerous for U.S. involvement. If the DPRK found itself losing, it couldn’t count on Chinese intervention for its salvation, as in 1950. But Pyongyang could target the U.S. homeland. And Washington has no geopolitical interests in the Korean peninsula worth nuclear war. The security commitment should end and the troops should come home.

The U.S. also needs to rethink maintenance of a “nuclear umbrella” over the Republic of Korea. Could any American president justify risking Los Angeles and Seattle to protect Seoul? Popular support in South Korea for a countervailing nuclear weapon is on the rise. The possibility of a nuclear-armed ROK might encourage the DPRK to reconsider its refusal to negotiate. The prospect of a South Korean bomb, which could lead to Japanese development of nuclear weapons as well, would have a particularly powerful effect on China, providing even more reason to discourage Pyongyang from its present course.

The North’s latest missile test reminds us that the Korean crisis is worsening on an almost daily basis. Unfortunately, the solution remains one of second bests. Washington needs to make protecting the American people its priority. That means avoiding, not accelerating, a nuclear conflict in Northeast Asia.

Doug Bandow is the Senior Fellow and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: Reuters.