Why the World Will Have to Live with a Nuclear-Armed North Korea

Kim Jong-un understands the crucial difference between possessing power and converting it into desired outcomes.

Take sanctions for example. North Korea’s economy eventually would have been paralyzed were the West able to persuade China and Russia to really tighten the vice by cutting off energy supplies. They will never do that, though, because while the United States and Europe (though not South Korea) can afford to watch the implosion of the North Korean economy and remain unscathed, China and Russia cannot. China has a nearly nine-hundred-mile land border with North Korea (the earthquake-magnitude tremors from Pyongyang’s September 3, 2017, nuclear test reached various parts of China’s adjoining Jilin Province). Though the Russia-North Korean border is only eleven miles, Russia too will feel the reverberations of a North Korean economic collapse. Beijing and Moscow rightly believe that they will largely be on their own in managing the mess and pumping in the funds that will be needed to mitigate its consequences, which will likely include a flood of refugees. They have no reason to wish that future on themselves.

Kim understands that the magnitude of North Korea’s economic problems ensures that its two most important supporters will choke it to death for fear of triggering a crisis, which, because of geography, will inevitably touch them. And because China and Russia have veto power in the UN Security Council, Kim can count on them to block a resolution that would target North Korea’s economy with the equivalent of a wrecking ball.

Similarly, though North Korea is vastly inferior to the United States militarily, Kim has played his weak hand with considerably savvy, which is precisely what has driven Trump—and his predecessors in the White House for that matter—to distraction. Trump, like his forerunners, is learning that United States, the world’s most powerful country, cannot threaten or coerce Pyongyang into submission. Trump’s fulminations and the less colorful—but no less pointed—warnings of Trump administration officials have far from rattled Kim and routinely elicited apocalyptic rejoinders. For example, America’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley said that North Korea’s continued nuclear tests amounted to “begging for war.” Also, Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that the United States was not looking to annihilate “a small country, namely North Korea, but . . . we have many options to do so.”

Pyongyang has been equally defiant when the United States and its allies have gone beyond words and staged shows of force. Neither the joint military maneuvers by South Korea, Japan and the United States—or the simulated bombing runs over South Korea by American B-1 Lancer bombers and F-35B stealth fighters in August—rattled North Korea. It upped the ante by firing over Japan a Hwasong-12 missile, which some experts estimate has a 3,700 kilometers (2,299 miles). Moves that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo make to deter Pyongyang, the latter regards as threats that necessitate a countermove. The result? A tit-for-tat that raises the political temperature, but achieves nothing else.

The United States and South Korea certainly have the military wherewithal to launch a preventive attack on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles sites. But Washington and Seoul would, as Kim well knows, have to be sure that Pyongyang won’t react by targeting South Korea and Japan, both of which host American bases and troops, with its surviving armaments. South Korea is especially vulnerable. While American and South Korean strikes (from the air and the ground) could demolish many of the missiles and artillery batteries that Pyongyang has targeted at Seoul, the success rate would have to be very high to avoid substantial carnage in South Korea, especially in greater Seoul, which contains over twenty-five million people.

While Washington and its two regional allies—Japan and South Korea—would certainly use military force if North Korea attacked any one of them first, would they do so in the absence of an attack by Pyongyang and solely to eliminate its nuclear sites? Kim has bet that they will not, and he certainly won’t initiate a war with them and provoke a response that would demolish his state. (Mercurial he is, suicidal he’s not.) What appears to be unadulterated recklessness on his part thus involves some cunning calibration.