For decades, North Korea’s hardline communist regime has flouted international norms and international law, threatened its perceived enemies with terrible violence, violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors, kidnapped and assassinated foreign nationals, engaged in a wide range of criminal activities, and built up its military, including nuclear weapons and missile programs, in violation of U.N. resolutions and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, who embodies this national tradition of iconoclasm and provocation, has repeatedly taunted the United States, reveling in the possibility of turning U.S. cities to “ashes” with his nuclear weapons.
Recent pressure from China, which has been encouraging North Korea to abandon its confrontational tone, as well as its nuclear and missile tests, seemly has achieved nothing. The North Koreans are as belligerent as ever, and their first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, conducted on July 4th (so as to cause maximum annoyance for the United States), confirms that they are nowhere near backing down.
And why should they? For decades, North Korea has thumbed its nose at the entire world, and the response has been tepid, at best. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean warship, and South Korea protested but took no meaningful action. The U.S. reacted with similar restraint when the U.S.S. Pueblo was seized in 1968. Over the years, North Korea’s nuclear program has invited condemnation and a progressive tightening of sanctions, but for a country that enjoys attention, even negative attention, and which engages in stunningly little trade with other nations, these measures are more a demonstration of international impotence than they are an effective set of countermeasures. President Obama addressed this impasse with a fruitless, toothless policy of “strategic patience,” which only emboldened the North Koreans, and led them to escalate their rhetoric and their military buildup.
This is the mess that the United States finds itself in, and which President Trump must somehow resolve. Acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea, with the capacity to strike against U.S. cities, is an unacceptable outcome, because Kim Jong-un’s rationality is in doubt, and his glee at the prospect of vaporizing American cities and their inhabitants is palpable. The Soviets, by contrast, may have been ruthless, but they were never reckless. One way or another, therefore, North Korea must be disarmed of its nuclear weapons and its long-range missiles. Since there is little prospect of achieving these goals by continued posturing and issuance of sanctions, there are only two ways that President Trump can make the world safe from North Korea.
The most desirable outcome would be one that disarms North Korea peacefully. The only way that this can be done under present circumstances is by delivering an ultimatum to Kim Jong-un. For instance, President Trump could demand that within 30 days North Korea will decommission its nuclear reactor, hand over its nuclear weapons, welcome U.N. nuclear inspectors, cease all work on long-range missiles, etc. in return for prompt negotiations on a peace treaty to end the state of war that still technically exists on the Korean Peninsula. In effect, we would be proposing to legitimize and accept the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang in exchange for enfeebling it militarily. My guess is that such an ultimatum would only work if it was accompanied by dire threats to use massive military force against North Korea if it refused to cooperate.
The second course of action that could result in the removal of the North Korean threat involves direct military action. North Korea could be blockaded as a preliminary step, but ultimately its nuclear and missile development facilities, nuclear reactor, missile launching sites, etc. would probably have to be destroyed by bombing. To suppress their conventional retaliatory capabilities, North Korea’s air defenses and its artillery forces might also have to be targeted on a large scale. The best case scenario would then be one in which the North Koreans quickly realize that they have bitten off more than they can chew, and to save their own skins they accept the demands of the international community. They might even overthrow Kim Jong-un and choose more responsible leadership. The worst case scenario, however, would be one in which North Korea retaliates against U.S. forces in the region, and probably against civilians in South Korea and Japan. Although there would be no question of North Korea prevailing in the ensuing conflict, and in my opinion very little possibility of Chinese intervention, casualties could be high.
Understandably, many in the U.S. and throughout the world are advising caution, given the high stakes involved. The problem, though, is that caution and forbearance have been the basis for policy towards North Korea for several generations, and the North Koreans have gotten the message, loud and clear, that they can do anything, to anyone, and get away with it. President Trump faces such a difficult challenge in North Korea precisely because previous U.S. and world leaders have been unwilling to accept the risks of confrontation. Now we have no choice.
President Trump: avoid unnecessary bloodshed if you can, but above all face down the North Koreans and eliminate the threat that they pose once and for all. The alternative could be as apocalyptic as the darkest fantasies that dart through the warped mind of Kim Jong-un.