President Donald Trump is learning the limits of power. Even a superpower has limits on what it can do on the world stage, and Trump is certainly getting schooled in this basic fact by Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. Because when it comes down to it, the choices Trump now faces are bad, worse, or ineffectual.
Trump himself can’t be blamed for this, unless he tweets his way into a nuclear war or something equally as disastrous. But so far, that hasn’t happened yet, and we’re all hoping it doesn’t come to that eventually. But even if Hillary Clinton were sitting in the Oval Office, it wouldn’t change the menu of options she would face ― or any American president, for that matter.
North Korea has been impossible to control in any meaningful way for at least the last three U.S. presidents. Each took slightly different routes, but North Korea essentially did whatever it wanted to anyway, no matter what America did. They know full well that any military action taken against them would mean the destruction of Seoul in short order. That is a price that is just too high to pay, which North Korea is fully aware of.
So while it’s nice to fantasize about pinpoint airstrikes which take out North Korea’s missile and atomic facilities, the reality is that even if we were able to completely destroy their ability to make nuclear weapons and missiles, it’s still a horrendously bad option to even consider. Much of their facilities are deep underground as well, which would make taking them out incredibly hard to accomplish.
North and South Korea are still technically at war with each other. The demilitarized zone is just where both armies got tired of fighting, essentially. There was no treaty signed to end the war, and no peace deal was ever struck in the 60-plus years since. So if one side attacks the other, a full-blown shooting war would erupt almost instantaneously. Indeed, that is what all those American soldiers in South Korea are still there for ― as a deterrent to any such attacks from the North.
Seoul is a metropolis of over 20 million people. It lies within range of North Korean conventional artillery. No high-tech missiles would be necessary for the North to rain down destruction on Seoul. Just thousands upon thousands of artillery pieces, which are ready and waiting on the northern side of the border. Because of this, Seoul is essentially a hostage city ― any American attack on the North would mean its destruction.
The only thing worse than reviving the conventional war on the Korean peninsula would be launching a nuclear war there instead. This is the “worse” option that America has, as unthinkable as it is. So far, North Korea has done nothing more than launch missile tests and satellites ― they haven’t aimed any of these missiles at any particular target, in other words. If they continue down this path, they’ll likely improve the range and reliability of their missiles. So far, they show every indication of planning to do precisely this. Which means if a nuclear war breaks out, the United States may be the one to launch a “pre-emptive strike.” We would thus become not only the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons in war, but also the only one to ever launch a first strike.
Even that might not be enough, however. If we attempted to take out Kim Jong Un’s nuclear stockpile with our own nukes ― and failed to do so ― then Seoul might pay an even higher price in retaliation. North Korea may not currently have a missile that can reach a major American city with a nuclear weapon, but it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re already able to do so with a shorter-range missile.
Hopefully, none of this will come to pass. But other than bad and worse, Donald Trump has only ineffectual options to choose from. We could talk to North Korea and even come up with some sort of agreement on their nuclear program, but we’ve already tried that and it didn’t work. Bill Clinton thought he had denuclearized North Korea, but they cheated and went ahead anyway. Since that time, nothing much else has worked any better. So even if we held two-party talks with them and hammered out an agreement, it likely wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on, in the end.
Sanctions have already been tried, and they have failed too. For a while, the world tried to starve North Korea into compliance, but their dictatorial regime is such that they really don’t care all that much if their citizens starve. Russia and China have now taken the position that trying to do so again is unacceptable, meaning the U.N. security council isn’t going to be able to impose such sanctions.
Of course, there’s only one country that really does business with North Korea, but the Chinese have their own reasons for not cracking down. China takes a longer view of the situation, and it is in China’s interests never to see the peninsula united once again. If North Korea collapsed and was absorbed by South Korea, then China would have an economic adversary ― complete with American troops ― stationed right across their border. Which is a big reason why China is so comfortable with the way things currently stand. It also serves China’s interest to have a client state with the capability of openly thumbing its nose at America. The more worried we are about the North Korea military, the less worried we are about China’s. Which suits China just fine.
Trump has, so far, been inconsistent towards China in regards to North Korea. He met with the Chinese leader and was informed how complicated the situation is, but Trump still seems to think that the only way out of the mess is to shove responsibility off on the Chinese, in the hopes that they’ll do something about it.
This strategy may eventually bear fruit, it’s worth mentioning, because China has so many economic levers to use against North Korea. Pulling one or two minor ones wouldn’t cut North Korea off completely, but would send a strong diplomatic message, at the very least. But America directly sanctioning North Korea isn’t likely to bear much fruit at all, since they do all their business with China. Economic sanctions against the Chinese might be effective, but then again they might backfire spectacularly.
So Donald Trump has no real good options. He could try ramping up sanctions, but likely won’t get very far without China’s help. He could ramp up the pressure on Beijing, but they could resist such pressure and ignore our demands. He could begin a diplomatic push to come to an agreement to get rid of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear arsenal, but there’s no guarantee it would work. It’s hard to even imagine what we’d be prepared to give up to reach such an agreement, at this point. North Korea would like all American troops to leave South Korea, but that’s not happening any time soon. The only other alternatives are bad and worse, which hopefully has been explained at length to Trump by his generals at the Pentagon.
When it gets right down to it, there’s not a lot America can do to halt the North Korean progress towards missile technology capable of reaching anywhere in the United States. This would be true no matter who is in the White House. By successfully holding Seoul hostage, North Korea has America backed into a corner with no good moves left to make. Trump can bluster about it all he wants, but when it comes time to commit to a policy, he’s really got a limited choice of options, and none of them should be seen as offering much hope of success, at this point. North Korea is already a nuclear power, and their technology seems destined to keep improving, no matter how much America would like to stop it.
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