The differing nature of each country’s political system should not be ignored either. In the case of both Russia and China, there is an advanced political structure in which the leaders who emerge have risen during a long career. These individuals must possess a degree of reason, patience, and resilience as pre-requisite of their station. In the case of North Korea, however, the requisite qualities are dynastic pedigree, personality worship, and absolute brutality – hardly a dependable catalog for nuclear restraint. Deterrence advocates rely heavily on Kim Jong-Un’s rationality to support their case. Leaving aside the fact that nuclear first use by North Korea could be rational, given the nature of the regime it is irrational for a U.S. president to stake millions of American lives on this assumption.
In timeless wisdom, the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides outlined the three causes of war: fear, honor, and interest. All three are at play on the Korean peninsula. The United States fears a North Korean nuclear weapon could detonate over an American city. Its status as a major power in Asia and credibility as an ally is on the line. And it has profound interests in North Korea not becoming an established nuclear power.
At present, only two nations can credibly threaten the United States with nuclear destruction, Russia, and China. A North Korean nuclear ICBM is entry to a very exclusive club. If this picture seems wrong instinctively, it is. Some with impressive nuclear resumes believe traditional nuclear deterrence strategies are adaptable to North Korea. They are totally wrong about this, and no-one should be seduced by this fantasy.
Creative diplomatic solutions have been suggested, of which former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ‘Grand Bargain’ is likely the best. But the probability of success is desperately remote and time is fast running out. War is the inevitable, and only, alternative.
Crispin Rovere is a member of the Australian Labor Party and previous convenor of the ACT ALP International Affairs Policy Committee. Formerly he was a Ph.D. candidate at the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) and previously worked in Secretariat of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and published on nuclear policy. Crispin is the author of The Trump Phenomenon: How One Man Conquered America.
This first appeared in RealClearDefense here.