The Skeptics

Will Trump Attack North Korea?

Yet there is good news, surprisingly enough. All of the Kims, including the current ruler, appear to be ruthlessly pragmatic, determined to enjoy their virgins in this world, not the next. The North Korean bomb is not a suicide weapon. Rather, it fulfills several important roles: defense against the globe’s superpower, which leans toward promiscuous regime change; sign of status, which allows an otherwise irrelevant impoverished land to dominate global headlines; tool of extortion, encouraging frightened neighbors to provide cash and aid; and domestic political prop, aimed at preserving the military’s loyalty.

To the extent that Kim’s public pronouncements matter, in his New Year’s address he talked about “making nuclear weapons a cornerstone” policy so long as the United States and Republic of Korea continue “nuclear threats,” “blackmail,” and “war exercises.” This is pretty standard DPRK boilerplate, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a kernel of truth. Henry Kissinger is reputed to have observed that even paranoids have enemies, and that certainly is the case for the North. After being tagged as a member of the Axis of Evil by the U.S. president who made his name (and ruined his reputation) by initiating regime change against a second Axis member, Pyongyang would be foolish not prepare against attack. Equally dubious would be relying on any American promises after the Obama administration helped oust the Libyan government which had negotiated away its nascent missile and nuclear capabilities.

All told, the DPRK is extremely unlikely to initiate an attack on America. What would it gain? Almost instant destruction. How would that benefit Kim & Co.? Pretty hard to imagine. So as long as Washington doesn’t start bombing the North, nothing much is likely to happen.

That doesn’t mean the situation is not dangerous. But almost the entire danger to America reflects the U.S. security guarantee to South Korea. Were American troops not present, backing up Washington’s promise to go to war on the ROK’s behalf, Kim would have no reason to pay much notice to America. Kim doesn’t spend a lot of time threatening to turn London, Paris and Berlin into lakes of fire. He has announced no plan for incinerating Indian, Kenyan and Indonesian cities. Washington matters because it has inserted itself into the middle of the messy Korean imbroglio.

So what should the Trump administration do?

Get out of Korea.

The United States is at risk because it has placed itself squarely within the Korean imbroglio. The South’s advantages are overwhelming—about forty times the GDP, a massive technological edge, overwhelming international support, including friendly relation with former DPRK allies China and Russia, and twice the population. There’s no need for American conventional forces to be stationed in or around the Korean Peninsula. Washington should phase out its military presence and end its security guarantee.

In the short-term, the United States should maintain its nuclear umbrella over the ROK. But over time Washington should consider other options, including the possibility of South Korea and Japan developing countervailing nuclear deterrents. That prospect might encourage Beijing to place more pressure on the North to happily short-circuit the entire process. In any case, the United States could decide to maintain its guarantee against a North Korean nuclear attack without maintaining any conventional forces in the peninsula.

An American withdrawal would have several advantages: remove Washington from the center of any Korean conflict, turn responsibility for the South’s defense over to Seoul, eliminate Washington’s role as the DPRK’s enemy number one, reduce perceived security threats against Pyongyang and shift responsibility for lowering regional tensions to countries in the region. The United States still would have interests at stake, but they would remain secondary to those of North Korea’s neighbors.

Having gotten out of Korea, the Trump administration would have more options in addressing the North: engagement over issues short of denuclearization and with limited expectations would make sense. Washington also would be better able to make a deal with China to pressure the North, having demonstrated that the United States would not attempt to use a reunited Korea as part of a campaign to contain China. And leaving the Asian mainland would give credence to America’s threat to back its allies’ potential quest for nuclear weapons, thereby building a Pacific nuclear shield against China and Russia as well as the DPRK.

North Korea remains the perpetual problem with no good solutions. It is the famed land of bad options. But rather than paint his administration into a corner, the president-elect could begin to put distance between America and the incipient crisis. That might not make the problems any easier to solve, but no longer would Washington be stuck with chief responsibility for dealing with the DPRK.                                                

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 co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: A South Korean soldier during Exercise RSOI/Foal Eagle ’02. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain