CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s secret trip to Pyongyang raises hopes that the planned summit between Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump will come off, and with positive results. Still, much could go wrong, especially if Kim proves unwilling to yield the North’s nuclear arsenal and capabilities without more than verbal and paper guarantees of Washington’s goodwill.
Even then, however, the president should not revive his belligerent, even militaristic posture of last year. This is not the first time America has faced the prospect of a worrisome adversary possessing nuclear weapons—and when restraint proved to be the best response.
North Korea has varied between problem and crisis since it was established in 1948. Originally selected by the Soviet Union to govern its occupation zone in the north of what had been Japan’s Korean colony, Kim Il-sung launched a full-scale assault in June 1950 to unify the peninsula. The United States and China successively intervened, leading to stalemate and an armistice in July 1953.
Korea’s cold war occasionally flared hot over the years, and the North began a serious effort to develop nuclear weapons in the early 1990s. Pyongyang also developed a growing array of missiles. Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong-il, continued both programs. Now the latter’s son, Kim Jong-un, who ascended the throne in the world’s only known communist monarchy, has been rapidly pressing forward in developing both nukes and ICBMs, capable of targeting the United States.
This has thrown the Trump administration into an unseemly panic. Then-National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson contended that Kim was uniquely dangerous and could not be deterred. One official called the possibility of a nuclear DPRK “unimaginable.” As the president threatened the North with “fire and fury,” administration officials reportedly debated military options.
Alas, North Korean retaliation would be almost certain in response to any American attack, the result of which could be full-scale war highlighted by the use of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. The ill consequences of other U.S. debacles, such as the Iraq and Vietnam wars, would pale in comparison.
Understandably, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un does not inspire confidence in the West. He has proved adept at brutally eliminating rivals, even executing his uncle. He also has routinely thrown a mix of insults and threats at both the Republic of Korea and the United States. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that he is suicidal. To the contrary, he, like his father and grandfather, evidently enjoys his virgins in this world rather than the next. U.S. intelligence has come to the same conclusion as most policy analysts: Kim is evil, not crazy. He wants to preserve his regime, not trigger a Goetterdaemmerung in which he leaves this world atop an atomic funeral pyre.
Indeed, the North’s nuclear program is not the first significant challenge to the equanimity of Washington policymakers. There was the Soviet Union, aggressive communist power ruled by Joseph Stalin, a man who defined ruthlessness and slaughtered his own supporters as well as opponents. If there was one government the United States did not want to see acquire nukes, it was Moscow. However, America stood by, rejecting proposals for preventive war.
Even more disturbing was the nuclear program undertaken by Mao Zedong’s China. The PRC’s effort began in 1955, apparently in response to American threats of nuclear war. Outsiders worried that Beijing’s leadership was anything but normal. The 1960 National Intelligence Estimate warned: the PRC’s “arrogant self-confidence, revolutionary fervor, and distorted view of the world may lead [China] to miscalculate risks. This danger would be heightened if Communist China achieved a nuclear weapons capability.”
Mao seemed unhinged even by communist standards. Mao makes Kim appear to be a responsible, even mainstream thinker. In 1955 the former told the Finnish ambassador that “The Chinese people are not to be cowed by U.S. atomic blackmail. Our country has a population of 600 million and an area of 9,600,000 square kilometers. The United States cannot annihilate the Chinese nation with its small stack of atom bombs.” Two years later Mao declared: “China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left.” He mused about nuclear war with Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru: If “half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.” Happily, in Mao’s view, the world’s population ultimately would recover.
In retrospect, such comments appear to have been political bravura rather than calculated policy, perhaps an attempt at geopolitical bluff by a notably weaker power. Nevertheless, Mao initiated the deranged “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s, which resulted in mass starvation, and the “Cultural Revolution” in the mid-1960s, which plunged much of the nation into a veritable civil war. No American could comfortably trust such a person to keep the peace.