The rhetorical war of words between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made it far more difficult to de-escalate the mounting crisis over the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs. But so, too, has a failure to come to terms with certain cruel and painful realities about the current situation. These ground truths aren’t pretty, and they may well be politically inconvenient for the Trump administration to accept. But without coming to terms with them, it’s doubtful that the Trump administration will be any more successful in managing let alone resolving the North Korean nuclear challenge than any of its predecessors. H. L. Mencken once opined that in a democracy it’s unfashionable to talk about the disease without discussing the remedy. And in the case of North Korea we must first see the world the way it really is before launching into a set of unrealistic and unrealizable remedies to fashion it the way we want it to be.
A War of Words Could Turn into a War
The provocative rhetoric from Kim is expected and predictable—both for his domestic consumption and maintenance of his tough and determined image on the world stage. The rhetoric from President Trump in response is both careless and irresponsible. The president, not once but twice, used intemperate and committing language (“the likes of which the world has never seen”), which plays into Kim’s hands, provokes him and causes severe upset and concern on the part of China, Japan and South Korea. Mr. Trump has put himself and the United States in the stunningly difficult position of now having to respond strongly with some action to such a test or to back down and thus reveal weakness and lack of resolve. These verbal redlines—regardless of the North Korean rhetoric that instigated them—are counterproductive. Trying to compete with Kim in a hyperbole contest sets in motion an escalatory cycle that makes America look small and insecure.
We Will Have to Live with North Korean Nukes
It’s not optimum, but we have no choice. It’s magical thinking that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons any time soon, if ever. In contrast, deterring, defending against and containing the North Korean nuclear threat are all feasible and realistic options. There is no shortage of good ideas for how to apply these strategies to the Korean Peninsula—through declaratory policy, military operations, additional missile-defense deployments and improvements to U.S. and South Korean forces, to name but a few.
Strategic deterrence has worked with the Soviet Union, Russia and China throughout the Cold War, and it will work with North Korea. First, Kim does not have a death wish—for himself, the Kim family dynasty or his country—and he is neither a crazy nor irrational madman. His primary motivations for acquiring an ICBM capability are defensive—to deter the United States from invading his country and overthrowing his regime, and to prevent reunification of the peninsula under South Korean control. Why would he take actions—a nuclear attack against the United States, South Korea or Japan; or an invasion of South Korea—that would result in the very outcomes he seeks to prevent and has paid a high price in sanctions, resources and isolation to achieve?
Kim also probably hopes to use North Korea’s nuclear weapons to coerce South Korea into making political concessions (e.g., ordering a withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Korea), or to deter the United States from coming to the defense of South Korea in the event of a North Korean attack. But the inconvenient truth for Kim is that, historically, it has been exceedingly difficult for a state to successfully use nuclear weapons to coerce another nuclear-armed state or a state without nuclear weapons that has a security guarantee from another nuclear-weapons state. If he hasn’t already learned the lesson that nuclear weapons are unusable for political purposes and their only value is to deter nuclear threats against a country’s security and sovereignty, he soon will—as long as the United States remains firm in its resolve to maintain its nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan.
China Will Not Solve the North Korea Problem
Beijing’s cooperation is a necessary but insufficient condition. China’s role as the indispensable nation on the North Korean nuclear file has become an idée fixe in the Trump administration. It’s easy to understand the conviction that if China wanted to bring North Korea to heel, it could: China supplies almost all of North Korea’s fuel and food and accounts for 90 percent of the North’s imports. But this view ignores Pyongyang’s resentment of its dependence on China and its fear of Beijing’s power and influence. And it also assumes that it’s in China’s interest to do U.S. bidding and to reduce Kim’s power on the peninsula. Right now, China appears to be sitting on the sidelines, annoyed with both Washington’s intemperance and Kim’s recklessness. China doesn’t know where Trump is heading. And other than an unstable North Korea that might result from too much external pressure, what Beijing fears most is a powerful U.S.-backed South Korea pressing its advantage in its own backyard and an America—together with Japan and South Korea—extending its influence in the region. Indeed, Beijing isn’t willing to press North Korea too hard precisely because Pyongyang represents an important hedge against expanding American power.