There Are Two Options When It Comes To North Korea, And Only One Of Them Makes Sense
Nicolas Kristof is pessimistic about the North Korea situation:
President Trump is traveling in Asia this week, rallying countries to strengthen sanctions against North Korea. His past efforts at this have been quite successful, and during my recent visit to Pyongyang I saw signs that sanctions were biting.
But the goal appears doomed: Almost no expert believes that sanctions will force Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons or halt his missile program. That puts us on a collision course, for North Korea seems determined to develop a clear capacity to target the U.S. with nuclear weapons, while the White House hints that it would rather have a war than allow the North to become a nuclear threat.
“Our president has been really clear about this,” H. R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said on Fox News. “He is not going to permit this rogue regime, Kim Jong-un, to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon. And so he is willing to do anything necessary to prevent that from happening.”
The whispers in Washington are that “anything necessary” includes airstrikes on North Korea, such as a strike on a missile as it is being prepared for launch. When I asked North Korean officials what would happen in those circumstances, they answered unambiguously: war.
This may be a bluff, but, if not, war is coming, for almost every expert believes that North Korea will continue its testing.
Trump didn’t create the problem, and it’s real: We should fear North Korea’s gaining the capacity to destroy U.S. cities. Eerily, on my last visit, North Koreans repeatedly said that a nuclear war with the U.S. was not only survivable but winnable.
The U.S. must now choose among three awful options: 1) A “freeze for a freeze” deal, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be pursuing; 2) Long-term deterrence, just as we have deterred North Korea for decades from using its chemical and biological weapons; 3) A conventional war that might escalate into a nuclear exchange.
Security experts overwhelmingly say the least terrible choice is the deal for a freeze on North Korean testing in exchange for reductions in sanctions or U.S.-South Korean military exercises, but at this point it’s not clear that either Washington or Pyongyang would agree to such an arrangement. Deterrence is next best, and war is the worst option. But that’s the option Trump seems headed toward.
North Korea may also inflame the situation with provocations at any time, such as firing a long-range missile into the sea near Guam, or conducting an atmospheric nuclear test that would send radioactive fallout drifting toward the United States. Trump may also shoot down a North Korean missile over international waters; that’s less provocative than a strike on North Korean territory, but I’d still expect a military response. And there’s a constant risk of miscalculations and incidents that spiral out of control.
Kristoff’s assessment is a grim one, but it’s one that appears to be becoming more common among foreign policy analysts here in the United States and other parts of the world. Leaving aside the issues raised by the fact that Donald Trump is President, the seeming intransigence of the Kim regime is apparent for anyone to see. Despite repeated warnings from the United States and China, both in public and in private, Kim Jong Un seems to be on the inevitable course of pursuing both more powerful thermonuclear weapons and a missile-based delivery system that is steadily proving to be able to deliver a payload further and more accurately with each test. We’re already at the point where the DPRK has missiles capable of reaching U.S. territories in the Pacific as well as Hawaii, Alaska, and a good portion of the western United States, not to mention closer potential targets in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and elsewhere in Asia. It won’t be much longer before they will also be able to reach the rest of the Continental United States and Europe. Neither the threat of an American attack nor threats by China to cut off the financial aid and markets that help keep the North Korean military awash in cash and the civilian population placated enough to avoid unrest. This follows the same pattern laid down by his Grandfather two decades ago when Kim’s grandfather began pursuing a nuclear weapons program and it’s unlikely to stop until either North Korea has the kind of nuclear arsenal that would make it feel secure, it agrees to abandon any further research, or the Kim regime is deposed. The first option is one that American Presidents and other world leaders have said is unacceptable, the second seems unlikely given the way that the regime has behaved for the past quarter century under three separate rules, and the third would either require a coup of some kind or a war.
As Kyle Mizokami notes at The National Interest, that final option would be a nightmare that would make Iraq and Afghanistan seem like a picnic by comparison:
The onset of war will trigger several races against time. The first and most important from the U.S. perspective is the neutralization of the Kim regime, its long-range missiles and chemical weapons. Next, although conventional victory is assured, South Korea and the United States must rapidly defeat the KPA in order to disrupt any effort to convert it into an insurgent force like Iraq’s Feyadeen Saddam. Third, both countries must quickly reach the cities to prevent a humanitarian disaster. As the capital rapidly falls into enemy hands, North Korea’s economy and food distribution system, already weak, will rapidly fold, leaving millions without food.
A ground war with North Korea would be an extremely complex operation with considerable military and civilian casualties on both sides. In fact, the ground war would be a mere slice of a multidomain conflict likely to involve missile attacks against Guam, Japan and South Korea, convoying, minesweeping, and other sea-based operations involving U.S., South Korean and Japanese naval forces, and even the readying of U.S. strategic forces. Unlike recent operations U.S. forces would face considerable risk in large numbers, operating against a numerically superior foe. Although American technological advantages, particularly in the areas of communications, mobility, and firepower would allow U.S. and South Korean forces to ultimately prevail, there would be little room for error.
While the United States and its South Korean ally, with probable support of some kind from nations such as Japan, Australia, and Great Britain, would most likely eventually succeed in a campaign against the DPRK, the price would be a far heavier one than anything the United States has seen since the Vietnam War or the original Korean War. For one thing, any invasion of the north would likely result in retaliation from North Korean forces on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone, which have the power unleash the power of tens of thousands of rockets and artillery pieces against not only any invading forces but also against the civilian population in Seoul and other major cities in South Korea and against American bases in both South Korea and in Japan. Additionally, the kind of amphibious invasion from the east and the west that Mizokami envisions would require coordination not dissimilar from the landing at Inchon at the start of the Korean War and the invasion of Normandy during World War Two, and that invasion would take place against a well-trained North Korean military that would have numerical superiority even notwithstanding what would likely be a sustained pre-invasion aerial campaign. It would, in other words, be a war unlike anything we’ve seen in fifty years:
A 2012 study by Roger Cavazos of the Nautilus Institute estimated there could be more than 2,800 fatalities in the initial volley. In total, Cavazos wrote, 64,000 people could be killed in the first day of any conflict. Another estimate recently given to U.S. lawmakers suggested that as many as 300,000 could die in the early days of a conflict, even if nuclear weapons are not used.
Many analysts have suggested it would be difficult and time-consuming to destroy these weapons if war broke out. ”When it comes to the artillery, there’s nothing we can do against the artillery directly to prevent bombardment of Seoul,” said Van Jackson, an expert on North Korean security issues at Victoria University in New Zealand.
All of this means, of course, that war is the last resort, and everyone seems to agree with that idea. Rationally, then, both sides should be willing to avoid war at any price, but as Dan Abrams notes, that’s what people thought about Saddam Hussein too:
ForeignPolicy.com published a well-researched and thoughtful assessment of Kim Jong Un earlier this year with the headline: Kim Jong Un Is a Survivor, Not a Madman: North Korea’s behavior might seem irrational to outsiders, but the Kim regime is just taking logical actions to survive.
Looking back at how Hussein was characterized well before his defeat, arrest and death, I quickly found a 1991 Los Angeles Times article by a professor of psychology and long-time CIA analyst who presented a profile of Hussein to the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, Dr. Jerrold Post. It offers haunting similarities to the North Korean dictator.
“The violence and aggression that have marked Saddam Hussein’s career have led him to be characterized — mostly in the West — as a madman,” Post said in the article.
The next sentence is even more striking for showing similarities between the two dictators.
“In fact, there is no evidence that Saddam is suffering from a psychotic disorder,” Post said. “He is a shrewd and ruthless political calculator, by no means irrational, but dangerous to the extreme.”
“There is no evidence Saddam is constrained by conscience,” he continued. “He uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
Both killed scores of people, including friends and family members to keep a firm grip on power. Not because they were “crazy” per se, but in response to even a hint, no matter how far-fetched, of any potential threat to their control and power. Each invoked a variety of invented political and legal justifications to try to explain his barbarity.
And their lenses are similarly parochial and myopic: “He is surrounded by sycophants who are cowed by his reputation for brutality and afraid to criticize him,” Post said about Hussein in 1991.
Kim Jong Un is regularly characterized in a similar fashion.
In 2011, Scientific American, citing psychological studies, compared Saddam, Hitler and Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il and concluded that:
“Kim Jong-il had more in common with Saddam Hussein (their profiles had a correlation of .67) than with Hitler (their profiles had a correlation of .20). Indeed, both Jong-il and Hussein had sadistic personality disorder as their highest rated item, and their scores were nearly identical – more than three standard deviations above the population average.”
Sure, there are relevant distinctions between Kim Jong Un and Saddam Hussein in terms of everything from their upbringing to the warped forces driving them, but it’s the final paragraph of that 1991 article that frightens me most as it foreshadowed the future: “Intoxicated by the elixir of power and the acclaim of the Arab masses, Saddam will not yield. He is willing to shed the last drop of the Iraqi people’s blood in pursuit of his revolutionary destiny.”
Looking back more than a decade later, Post turned out to be spot on.
All of this goes a long way toward saying that the odds that diplomatic efforts to derail the North Korean nuclear program will be successful are somewhere between slim and none. At that same time, war would clearly be equally unacceptable unless we are willing to pay a price in lives and destruction unlike anything the world has seen in more than a half century. As Dave Majumdar notes in The National Interest, that leaves one only real acceptable option:
Most foreign policy analysts agree that a denuclearized Korean peninsula is not a realistic or achievable goal. A more realistic goal is a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing freeze, but that only works up to a point. If North Korea is close to perfecting an ICBM coupled with a miniaturized nuclear warhead, there is no incentive for Pyongyang to stop.
In the view of the Kim regime, only a nuclear arsenal—and one that can directly hit the U.S. mainland—is the only way Pyongyang can ensure the survival of its government. North Korea has learned the from the mistakes of Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya that was toppled with the assistance of American airpower in 2011, despite have received security guarantees in exchange for giving up its weapons of mass destruction.
“[Kim Jong-un] He’s not crazy. And there is some rationale backing his actions which are survival, survival for his regime, survival for his country, and he has watched I think what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability,” Director of National Intelligence Sen. Dan Coats said at the Aspen Security Forum in July.
“The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes and Ukraine giving up its nukes is unfortunately if you had nukes, never give them up.”
Thus, short of military action—in this case a likely nuclear war—there is no denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Essentially, the choice is binary—deterrence or war.
Given the choice, deterrence would obviously be the more rational strategy for the West, but that would require a major shift in current policy for the United States and its allies. In the end, though, it may be the only sane option left on the table.