North Korea makes the Middle East look like a walk.
Firing 59 Tomahawk missiles from warships in the Eastern Mediterranean at Bashar al-Assad’s Al-Shayrat airbase in Syria was not a big deal. Assad can’t strike back. Not at the United States, anyway. But that largely bloodless exercise in deterrence against the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction will never be repeated on the Korean Peninsula.
For two decades, the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia have practiced a policy of “strategic patience” with the Kim family in Pyongyang, waiting for North Korea’s regime to settle down and moderate its behavior like communist China, Vietnam and Cuba finally did.
It didn’t work.
In 2009, the North Koreans conducted their first underground nuclear test 43 miles northeast of the port city of Kimchaek. Since then, they’ve created several more nuclear weapons—no one is really sure how many they have—and are busy at work on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that could one day wreak genocidal levels of destruction in the Western United States.
Last month, the young tyrant Kim Jong-un fired four missiles into the Sea of Japan, partly to show that he could and partly to find out how the new-on-the-job Trump administration would react. When the White House struck Syria’s Assad regime with Tomahawks, the North Koreans predictably perceived that as a message to them and threatened to test another nuclear weapon. The White House then (incorrectly) said it dispatched the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group toward the Korean Peninsula, Kim showed off mock-ups of his missiles on international television in the center of Pyongyang, and Vice President Mike Pence said “the era of strategic patience is over.” Kim is now threatening South Korea, Japan and the United States with a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says this is “the Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.” It isn’t that bad. This looks like a real crisis, but it’s not. It’s blustery posturing masquerading as brinkmanship. A genuine crisis, however, is probably coming.
In North Korea, like everywhere else, we have only three options: diplomacy, acquiescence or war. Diplomacy, so far, has failed. The last two decades of strategic patience yielded a North Korea with nuclear weapons.
War is always horrendous, but on the Korean Peninsula it’s practically the apocalypse. Even before the Kim family went nuclear, the North Koreans placed enough artillery pieces in hardened positions along the border just 35 miles from South Korea’s capital Seoul to kill hundreds of thousands long before American and South Korean armed forces could stop him.
North Korea would lose a war, no question about it, but it would be so spectacularly destructive that intervention of any kind is impossible unless Kim starts it. And if he does start it, intervention culminating in regime-change is mandatory. He only gets to start a war once.
That’s the nightmare scenario for us as well as for him, but especially him. Neither side wants to go there.
It’s insanely not in Seoul’s interests to start a war for any reason, ever, and so far that has also been true for Washington. That calculus may change if Kim reaches the threshold where he can do to Seattle what he can do to Seoul.
The United States has long acquiesced to the existence of a communist regime on the Korean Peninsula. If Kim is willing to quit while he’s ahead and call the status quo good enough, the US will too. It’s the best deal he’s going to get, and it’s the best deal we’re going to get.
If the diplomatic option doesn’t work—and it hasn’t worked yet—and Kim threatens to test a system with the power to incinerate the West Coast of the United States with the push of a button, it really will be the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again. This time it might not end so nicely, and the clock will likely run out while Donald Trump is still in the White House.