Negotiations between the United States and North Korea appear to be on life support. President Donald Trump’s talk of another summit led the North’s Kim Jong-un to condition such a meeting on Washington’s willingness to loosen sanctions.
Yet official Washington earlier greeted President Donald Trump’s explanation for cancelling another round of proposed sanctions on North Korea with guffaws. However silly it is for him to say he “likes” the North’s Kim Jong-un, the president apparently understands that diplomacy is better than war and American escalation is likely to trigger North Korean retaliation. That would be in no one’s interest.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea long has been a difficult actor. Yet over the last year there have been no violent attacks, no missile or nuclear tests, no threats of annihilation and destruction, and even few insults. That obviously is a major improvement. And it suggests the possibility of the DPRK evolving from a heavily-armed, aggressive, and threatening state to a still heavily-armed, but mostly satiated, even vaguely responsible state.
Obviously, the North’s history suggests skepticism when assessing any apparent change in Pyongyang. Nevertheless, Kim appears different than his father and grandfather—no liberal, but nevertheless more interested in economic growth and diplomatic engagement. Moreover, he may have decided that the best strategy to deter an American attack is to appear nonthreatening and reasonable.
Ultimately, such a transformation may be more important for the United States and especially for South Korea than denuclearization. Washington policymakers do not fear France, Israel, or the United Kingdom because they possess nuclear weapons—nor India or even Pakistan, since their nukes are not aimed at America.
The end of the Cold War reduced the potential for a nuclear holocaust because the militarized ideological rivalry with the Soviet Union, which Ronald Reagan famously called an “evil empire,” disappeared—not because Moscow abandoned its nuclear weapons. The People’s Republic of China also possesses nuclear weapons, but few Americans imagine themselves being targeted by Beijing, which suggests that genuine reconciliation—admittedly hard to assure—could deliver both stability and peace to the Korean peninsula.
There is another reason to pursue diplomacy so long as there is any chance of success. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has hurt the DPRK economy and state. However, North Korean officials insist that the regime will not capitulate, and history gives their claim credibility. In the late 1990s a half million or more people died of starvation; neither regime nor policy changed as a result. Additional U.S. sanctions are unlikely to force a different outcome today.
The only other option is war. “Within five to eight years, North Korea is likely to have enough survivable nuclear capability to make any move into North Korea prohibitively costly,” according to RAND Corporation. The president appeared to be going down such a course in late 2017, before agreeing to meet with Kim; some reports indicate that President Trump came close to ordering strikes on the North.
The Clinton administration took the same path, apparently, before also turning to diplomacy. Other advocates for triggering Armageddon on the Korean Peninsula include the late Sen. John McCain, who supported all of America’s recent disastrous conflicts, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in February 2018, shortly before his appointment, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”
Military action against the DPRK would be a massive game of chicken with hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of lives at stake. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a militarist like McCain, tweeted after the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit: it is time “to end the nuclear threat from North Korea—one way or the other.” He earlier dismissed fears of attacking the North since the conflict would be “over there,” he declared, rather than “over here.”
That ignores the fact that some 250,000 Americans are in South Korea on any given day and U.S. military forces would be drawn into any war on a massive scale. Moreover, the Republic of Korea’s sprawling capital city is within range of artillery and missile attack. Although there are disagreements over North Korean capabilities, the RAND Corporation has previously warned that “given that 50 percent of South Korea’s population and 70 percent of its economic activity are in the Seoul metropolitan area, this is a potentially catastrophic threat to South Korea.” A conventional invasion also might reach Seoul. Despite efforts made by America and South Korea to limit the damage, the loss of life, economic costs, and sheer destruction likely would be enormous, despite the inevitable victory.
And if Pyongyang has married nuclear warheads to short- and mid-range missiles—it likely does not have the capacity to target American cities—then it could wreak havoc in the Asia-Pacific region. Imagine nuclear attacks on Seoul and Tokyo, as well as American bases in Guam and Okinawa. The consequences would be horrendous. The DPRK needs only a limited arsenal to impose substantial penalties on any attacker. Even a small force could “destroy South Korea’s major cities and do other damage if it believes its survival is truly at stake,” warned the RAND Corporation.
Some advocates of limited strikes against North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction imagine that the threat of retaliation would prevent any response. However, given the fate of other regimes targeted by Washington, the North likely would perceive attacks on its most important military assets as merely the first stage, with regime change to follow. Moreover, given America’s massive military advantages, North Korea’s weapons are essentially use it or lose it. Even if the United States intended to keep the fight limited, then the DPRK would most likely go all in.
In fact, this was the conclusion of the RAND Corporation after running several wargames. Although Washington might consider targeting the North’s nuclear issue as a limited objective, “some North Korean factions in the wargames tended to view U.S. intervention as the prelude to unification and thus an existential threat to North Korea as an independent entity. This put them in the situation of using their nuclear weapons—the ultimate guarantor of their security—or losing them.” The RAND Corporation concluded that nuclear war was inevitable and noted that “in all the wargames, at least one of the North Korean factions employed a nuclear weapon during the conflict.” In summarizing the results of various war scenarios, RAND stated the additional complications of “the logistical burden and local chaos of a noncombatant evacuation operation and the potential for third-party intervention, especially by China.”
Moreover, the United States might find itself fighting without its Asian allies.For example, North Korean capabilities might allow it to “hold at risk bases required for warfighting and force flow; blackmail regional allies into denying the use of their facilities in a crisis or war; hold CONUS [the American homeland] directly at risk; and promise a massive retaliation against U.S. allies in the event that U.S. or South Korean forces violate North Korean territory,” according to the RAND Corporation. Japan, for one, might decide to sit out a Second Korean War, especially if it was started by Washington.
The problem is not just combat, but thereafter. “Casualties at this scale would likely exhaust the South Korean military’s capacity for follow-on missions, such as unifying the peninsula or securing WMD sites,” according to the RAND Corporation. And even disintegration of the Kim regime would not make it easy to recover the nuclear arsenal. Whoever was in control would have an incentive to preserve them for leverage. They could be hidden with ease and would not be susceptible to destruction via bombing. Then there is the prospect of a confrontation with China, which might intervene to secure its border and/or grab loose nuclear weapons.
All this to eliminate a threat which can be deterred, since the Kim dynasty, though evil, has never shown any signs of being suicidal. The regime’s rulers always preferred their virgins in this world rather than the next one. Although the United States was uncomfortable deterring Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China, it did so successfully for years. It could do the same for Kim’s DPRK as well.
Denuclearization remains a worthy objective. However, the perfect should not become the enemy of the good. Even more limited agreements could promote peace and stability on the peninsula. President Trump should keep open the diplomatic door which he so dramatically opened a year ago.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Trouble Relations with North and South Korea.