North Korea Leaves Us With Only One Good Option

Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States once again faces the real possibility of nuclear war with a communist state. Because as of this week, American intelligence agencies believe North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be squeezed into one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The intelligence is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure—if North Korea can’t nuke the United States now, it will be able to soon enough. Sanctions won’t convince Kim Jong-Un to give up his arsenal, nor will pressure from China. Becoming a nuclear power is an existential issue for him after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, which leaves the United States with only one option.

That option is obvious if we game everything out. Last month, Mark Bowden wrote a sobering essay in The Atlantic as long as an epic poem where he carefully examines four basic options, all of which are terrible: prevention, turning the screws, decapitation and acceptance.

There are actually seven options rather than four, but we’ll get to the other three later. First, let’s look at Bowden’s.

And let’s start with, prevention, which he defines as “a crushing U.S. military strike to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenals of mass destruction, take out its leadership, and destroy its military.” We’d win the war. No question about it. The United States military is capable of destroying anything it puts in its crosshairs. But North Korea will fight back as surely as any other country under attack would fight back. Millions would die, and they’d die within weeks, days, possibly even hours. Kim has thousands of artillery pieces buried in mountains and hillsides that could destroy South Korea’s capital Seoul as effectively as a volcano erupting right underneath it. Even if Kim doesn’t touch his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, more people could be killed on a per-day basis than during any other war ever fought. A full-blown Korean war would be, as Bowden says, one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.

We could try turning the screws, so to speak, with limited pinprick strikes that fall far short of all-out war. The North Korean regime, though, is famously paranoid and could easily perceive a limited strike as the opening salvo of a regime-change operation and, if so, would respond with an all-out attack of its own. And if Kim did realize that nothing more than pinprick strikes were coming his way, the odds that they’d be effective are negligible. We’re not sure where his stockpiles are, we can’t erase the scientific knowledge his government already has, and bombing him is as likely as not to make him even more committed than he already is.

Decapitation—assassinating Kim and the leadership circle around him while sparing everyone else—is a lot more appealing and seems a lot less dangerous. The problem is that we’d have to recruit inside help, which is nearly impossible, and in any case his military is already under orders to ignite a total war if we try. Even if it did work, Kim’s replacement could be more paranoid and belligerent, and removing the next guy would be even harder.

Bowden’s fourth option is acceptance. (And keep in mind that accepting something isn’t the same thing as liking it.) If the cost of stopping North Korea from becoming a world-class nuclear power is catastrophically high, some form of acceptance may be all that remains. The cost of acceptance, though, may also be catastrophically high.

Russia and China have been capable of striking the United States with nuclear weapons for decades now, but hardly anyone has been losing much sleep over it since Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. Kim Jong-Un is no Gorbachev, though. He rules as brutally at home as the Soviet Union’s worst tyrant Josef Stalin did, and he seems as comfortable with brinkmanship as Saddam Hussein was—a terrifying combination. He is already capable of killing millions in Seoul and thousands of American soldiers stationed along the so-called demilitarized zone on the border. Soon enough, he’ll be able to do the same to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington.

Asking Americans to accept this is like asking us to swallow razor blades while maniacs hold guns to the heads of our friends. We don’t have to swallow anything, but our friends will get their brains blown out if we don’t. We don’t have to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, but millions of people will die if we don’t, including thousands of ours.

There are three more options available, though, starting with this: The United States could threaten to nuke North Korea and hope Kim stands down. Mark Bowden and the military and foreign policy professionals he consulted didn’t consider that as a serious option for reasons that are probably obvious. Barack Obama never would have done it, nor would George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter certainly wouldn’t have done it. But they seem to have forgotten who currently works in the White House.

Donald Trump effectively did it on Tuesday when he said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” What is that if not a threat to drop a hydrogen bomb on top of Pyongyang?

It might work, but we’d better not count on it. All Kim has to do is threaten the United States one more time, and if Trump doesn’t enforce his own red line, Kim will know it’s a bluff. He probably already knows it’s a bluff because the State Department has already dialed it down. “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said within hours of the president’s threat, “would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

If bluffing North Korea doesn’t work, the United States could actually nuke North Korea. Whether the US military would obey an order to pre-emptively use nuclear weapons against another country is an open question. (And whether Congress would allow a president who gave such an order to remain in the White House is another.) We could speculate all day about the terrible consequences that would result from instantly killing tens of millions of people in the most violent moment of our species’ history. A man who would give such an order almost certainly wouldn’t correctly anticipate the convulsive reaction, both at home and abroad, that would result, or how history would remember him. No sober-minded foreign policy professional on any point on the political spectrum would ever recommend this course of action.

The final option is related to Bowden’s fourth option but a little less terrible. It starts with acceptance, but it doesn’t end there.

Think about it: why does Kim Jong-Un want nuclear weapons? He is not Osama bin Laden, and he is not ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He isn’t even Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei. He doesn’t want to incinerate the United States any more than the Soviet Union did. He simply wants his regime to survive, and he’s already kept in check with something worse than Mutually Assured Destruction. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev could have nuked us all into oblivion and brought about a planetwide near-extinction event, but this is not that bad. Kim will probably never be able to destroy every American city, but we can already kill every living thing, with the possible exception of a handful of cockroaches, inside North Korea.  

Mutually Assured Destruction would probably work, but it guarantees mutual perpetual angst. So let’s trade. We can give Kim what he wants and he can give us what we want. He just wants to survive. We want to live without a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

The Korean War killed millions and only technically paused with an armistice agreement in 1953. It never formally ended. Rather, we have been enjoying a very long lull, one that has lasted longer than most of us have been alive. We’re all so accustomed to it that it seems like the natural order of things.

But it’s not. All wars eventually end, and they don’t have to end with regime-change. The Vietnam War wound down decades ago, and the United States has excellent relations with the same government we used to fight in Hanoi. The Vietnamese Communist Party reformed itself out of all recognition, for sure, but we settled that conflict years before it happened.

We could do the same thing in Korea. We could negotiate a formal end to the conflict and sign a mutual non-aggression pact. What do we have to lose? If the US were to start (or resume) a war on the Korean Peninsula, it could easily rank as the worst foreign policy decision in American history. It would be an even bigger mistake if Kim were to do it. So why not put it in writing?

The only reason Kim wants nuclear weapons is because, after Libya and Iraq, he doesn’t feel safe. The truth, though, is that he has been safe all along. The north’s hardened artillery pieces pointed at Seoul guaranteed his safety long before he took power. We will never send our army in there just because we don’t like him. His problem, and ours, is that he either doesn’t know it or doesn’t believe it.

In an ideal world, we’d take him out with a drone strike and watch the two Koreas unite like the two Germanys did after the Cold War. In the real world, Kim Jong-Un sits on top of a doomsday machine and we can’t remove him without setting it off. The question is, how do we want him to feel while he sits there? If we’re not going to take him out—and if we are, we should do it today, not tomorrow—far better for everyone’s sake if he feels secure enough not to turn himself into the world’s largest suicide bomber.

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