We’ve all heard the new mantra in Washington about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, dutifully intoned by every cable news panel of former admirals and ambassadors: “There are no good options.”
Suddenly, our experts are lined up like bobble-head dolls, nodding in agreement about America’s untenable choices, while the DPRK is goosestepping toward a nuclear future unencumbered by any Iranian-style doublespeak about the peaceful uses of atomic power.
North Korea’s ever-advancing nuclear warhead delivery system and Kim Jong Un’s naked threat to use it against American cities on the Pacific Rim is as ominous as it is outrageous, but it’s at least managed to unite Republicans and Democrats for the first time in the Trump administration.
As well it should. Both political parties have been complicit the past twenty years in allowing the US to be diplomatically duped into letting the DPRK cross the “Bridge of No Return,” which will lead, perhaps within three years, to atomic bomb-tipped ICBMs.
Because of the effete efforts of our negotiators, we’ve reached a point where even President Trump’s threats of “severe” consequences for the DPRK are transparently empty.
His seasoned and respected defense chief, Gen. James Mattis, will not — despite his “Mad Dog” moniker — suggest any military action that would trigger a conflagration that kills hundreds of thousands on both sides of the Korean peninsula’s demilitarized zone.
There may have been a targeted Israeli-type military response possible fifteen years ago, but not any longer.
There is, however, still one path to a sufficiently rational and predictable North Korea: recognizing the DPRK’s sovereign right to be a nuclear power worthy of direct negotiations with the American government at the highest levels.
On its face, it’s a repulsive idea to most Americans, given the ruthless and capricious brutality of the Kim dynasty, but that’s only because we have short memories.
We forget that the US has been happy to cooperate militarily with Pakistan over the years to protect our interests, even though it’s a rogue nuclear state and a duplicitous safe haven for the very international terrorists we’re hunting.
We forget about the distasteful pragmatism that began our relationship with nuclear giant China. Mao Zedong’s henchmen are estimated to have killed more than 60 million of his political enemies during the “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960’s and unquestionably aided North Vietnam in the slaughter of tens of thousands of American troops.
His “punishment” was a much-lauded personal pilgrimage by President Nixon to “start a long march together” with Mao in search of “peace and harmony.”
Above all, we forget the humiliating saga of the USS Pueblo, a research-turned-spy ship that was seized by the North Koreans in international waters in 1968 — along with its 83-man crew. One soldier was killed and the others underwent torture and starvation in a DPRK prison camp for nearly a year.
Although some in the Johnson administration lobbied for a muscular — even nuclear — response, in the end the ship’s commander, Lloyd Bucher, and the negotiating US general, Gilbert Woodward, secured the release of the crew by signing confessions, the final one “solemnly apologizing” for America’s “grave acts of espionage,” and giving North Korea the “firm assurance” that these acts would never be repeated.
The Pueblo itself was impounded by the North Koreans and paraded up and down the Potong River in Pyongyang, where it remains today, a symbol of the utilitarian nature of American foreign policy in the atomic age.
As unappetizing as these “sausages and laws” realities may be, we need to forge ahead with a new diplomatic strategy for North Korea, based on two unalterable facts:
First, the Kim dynasty will never, ever relinquish its nuclear weapons program. It has survived the Korean Conflict, 12 US presidents, and the fall of the Soviet Union, and it considers its nuclear arsenal the key to its future survival.
Kim Jong Un sees the DPRK as a ten-year-old boy being unfairly attacked by a world-champion UFC mixed marital arts fighter. The boy has managed to find a gun to hold the attacker at bay, and he’s never going to give up that gun, no matter how many promises of non-aggression are made.
Second, China will never, ever put any “heavy moves” on the DPRK. The North Korean rabid dog that is threatening China’s hated neighbors two doors down may be giving Bejing a few sleepless nights with its barking, but that’s a small price to pay for the havoc the dog is wreaking on the US, South Korea and Japan.
After all, these are three countries the Chinese leadership has always delighted in threatening. The fact that it can be done by a surrogate while China is portrayed as a sincere peacemaker who, according to President Trump, at least “tried” to de-escalate mounting tensions, is a Christmas-in-July gift I’m sure Xi Jinping can hardly believe.
These being the facts on the ground, let’s admit that we’ve gotten ourselves, as the pilots say, “behind the power curve,” and are now in the “region of reversed command” with respect to North Korea.
That region requires counterintuitive thinking in order to reach a permanent detente that will be upheld by the Kim regime, and that means formally recognizing the legitimacy of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, even as we strengthen our defensive capabilities and those of our allies.
I believe that’s possible because I believe the Kim regime is simply seeking a nuclear insurance policy that will protect the DPRK from external attack and forestall an internal coup d’etat.
As eccentric and volatile as his posturing is, Kim Jong Un is not martyr material. I don’t believe he wants to die for his country, or invade any other. By all accounts, he’s a dissolute dictator who wants to rule his hermit Kingdom in comfort, caviar and Cristal champagne.
And who better to propose a toast to our newfound understanding of North Korea’s nuclear sovereignty than our own eccentric dealmaker president who declared Kim Jong Un “a pretty smart cookie”?
So have at it, Mr. President! Remember the Pueblo and give Kim the respect and security he wants. Just make sure we get the ship back as part of the deal.
Timothy Philen is the author of Harper&Row/Lippincott’s “You CAN Run Away From It!,” a satirical indictment of American pop psychology.