What to do about North Korea? The escalating apocalyptic rhetoric between North Korea and the United States echoes around the world – leading Americans to wonder whether their summer holidays are going to be interrupted by a Korean nuclear showdown, let alone the Korean people who would be most harmed by one. No doubt yesterday’s Washington Post revelation that Pyongyang has successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon which could fit on one of its ICBMs caught the public, let alone the U.S. intelligence community off-guard.
Although this bombshell from the Defense Intelligence Agency has not been substantiated by the entire intelligence community that did not stop President Trump from barking out an off-the-cuff warning in words not heard since President Harry Truman’s dire threat to Japan to surrender or face a “rain of ruin” that the U.S. would unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea.
There is no “fake news” from North Korea. Kim’s regime has crossed into “parts unknown.” This really is the most serious nuclear weapons crisis since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
And this is no Trump-inspired crisis either. The North Korean hot potato has been tossed into each succeeding president’s hands ever since Kim’s father embarked on a single-minded nuclear weapons and missile construction program. None of Trump’s predecessors succeeded in preventing the Kim dynasty from achieving this milestone. Obama’s Administration was especially tone-deaf to the growing threat, preferring an innocuous-sounding policy of “strategic patience” (aka blissful ignorance because it was an inconvenient truth interfering with Obama’s failed “pivot to Asia” policy).
It is an article of faith in the conduct of American foreign policy from the Reagan Administration forward that a nuclear-armed North Korea poses a direct threat to American security. Yet no president (whether by carrot, stick or both) has been able to stop Kim’s inexorable march to where his regime is today – able to launch missiles with a potential trajectory capable of reaching the West Coast. Lathering successive Kim regimes with high level hostage-springing visits and largess hasn’t produced any taming of the beast, nor has bribery, ransom, or escalating threats to act.
So stepping back, perhaps naively, one must ask: does it really matter that North Korea has nukes? After all, one of the craziest countries on the planet – Pakistan – has them, so do a host of other countries. Is a regime so focused on its own survival really going to risk an all- out war with the U.S. and its Pacific allies which would lead to the demise of the Kim dynasty?
Well, great shades of Saddam, no one really knows for sure what Kim Jong-un would do, because western rationality does not compute in Pyongyang.
The Kim dynasty has brainwashed its people into believing that the “Dear Leader” as with his father Kim Jong Il, and as with his grandfather, Kim Il Sung (the founder of the Stalinist Communist North Korean regime) are heirs to divinely-inspired ancestors descending from Mount Paektu (the Mount Olympus in Korean mythology) with magical powers of leadership, sexuality, athletic prowess, and military genius.
This all begs the question: why not just leave the crazy Kim alone with his nukes. Don’t pay any more attention to his taunts and threats. Contain him by incessantly strangling his regime to the maximum extent possible with ever more tightening economic sanctions and hope that his regime eventually collapses under economic stagnation – while ratcheting up our missile defenses in South Korea and the western Pacific. This course of action requires a major leap into the unknown and assumes that Kim would never launch a pre-emptive nuclear weapon at either our allies, U.S. forces, or indeed at the continental U.S.
However soothing that may sound as the way out of this mess no one in decision-making authority is willing to take that bet. And who can blame them?
There is nary a North Korean soothsayer worth his or her salt who has a good track record predicting what the Kim regime may do from one day to the next. Not one. Not even the many defectors from his tyrannical regime.
Left unanswered is that a Kim with nuclear tipped missiles may actually use them because of a miscalculation that any overt (or covert) military moves by the U.S. or its allies to increase their military footprint in and around the Korean peninsula is a prelude to an all-out attack against his regime. And if, God forbid a Kim-ordered missile is launched toward Guam or Hawaii or the West Coast, can we be 100% certain that our anti-ballistic missile systems can shoot it down. There’s lots of talk from American military experts on our news channels of late that our missile defense systems are “excellent” or “highly capable” but no former or current head of North America’s missile defense system has gone on the record to assure us our defensive systems are 100% fool-proof. Would you place your trust in hypothetical probabilities?
Consequently, as I see it there are three “least” bad strategic choices before the White House (out of others being tossed about including a full-scale attack against North Korea’s military capacity):
1) Accept, whether by omission or by commission (i.e., some sort of diplomatic deal) that North Korea is a nuclear power with the potential of hitting the territorial U.S., let alone U.S. forces stationed in the Pacific as well as our allies (which I discussed above);
2) Get deep into the trenches with the Chinese to plot and plan a decapitation of the Kim regime after severely weakening it economically;
3) Launch a pre-emptive “limited” attack in an effort to destroy Kim’s nuclear program (assuming we can locate them since they are buried deep underground or on mobile launchers).
The devil is in the details.
Option #1 may be a bridge too far given the nature of this president and the fabricated bravado of his senior White House staff (WH staffer Sebastian Gorka is a centrally-casted Dr. Strangelove). Another president, another time, perhaps. How ironic would it be if in the end of this decades long saga we reach a point where Kim’s nuclear weapons status is reluctantly accepted by the U.S.?
As macho as Option #3 may sound to our macho president, it is an option fraught with failure written all over it. We can never be certain that a limited military attack actually destroys enough of Kim’s nuclear weapons and missiles. Once the Pandora’s box of war is opened who can tell where it will lead and where it will end, and at what cost?
Even if my heart prefers Option #1, Option #2 seems to me to be the most logical provided the Chinese can be dragooned into a cooperative covert plan (and that is a heavy diplomatic lift, to be sure). We have a long way to go before Option #2 becomes a legitimate option.
So before we stumble down that road without a sure-footed strategy we have to stop the doomsday clock and buy the necessary time to get our ducks line up with Beijing, if possible, to determine the legitimate feasibility of regime decapitation. Moreover, recently adopted UN sanctions do not just take effect overnight, either. And let us not forget that cooler heads need more time to prevent the worst possible outcome: a major conflagration on the Korean peninsula.
So, where the hell is the UN Secretary General? Shouldn’t he be parked in Pyongyang in an 24/7 effort to diffuse the crisis? I haven’t seen him anywhere where he should be.
What about designating a special American envoy to explore directly with Kim unconditional talks to determine whether any common ground could possibly be found before a shot is fired?
Secretary of State Tillerson is winging his way back home after assuring the Kim that the U.S. has no regime change in mind, much less a pre-emptive military strike against it. Tillerson may be playing “good cop” to Trump’s “bad cop” but Tillerson is viewed abroad as an uncertain and unsteady secretary of state who lacks gravitas to carry out credible, direct talks with Kim’s government, especially given his boss’s proclivity to tweet. He can’t even run his own State Department without a daily dose of op ed condemnation over his propensity to micromanage every decision surrounded by an overindulgent, insular clique of political operatives.
That is why former Secretary of State Baker should be enlisted to pick up the diplomatic baton. Baker is a seasoned, uber-professional, globally respected diplomat who has the street smarts, partisan pedigree, and Congressional respect to serve as an eleventh-hour Trump envoy. Baker should be tagged by Trump to explore whether Kim can be cajoled into some sort of temporary freeze of his missile testing program as he constructs a broader international alliance (a Baker specialty) and sophisticated, deft diplomacy (another Baker specialty). Leave Tillerson to mind a broken store that has to be fixed if he is to survive as secretary of state.
Isn’t it prudent to recalibrate our diplomatic approach for the next several months so it is not rashly executed under the threat of a mushroom cloud on the horizon? After all, before the immediate crisis exploded onto the front pages, Trump himself sent some important olive branches to Kim. We need more time to turn those screws to avoid a horrific war.
Realizing Kim will NEVER forfeit his nuclear weapons program unless he is compelled to do so by force of arms, at the very least a negotiation could possibly freeze the clock on overt provocative acts either by the U.S. or North Korea to enable the latest round of potentially punishing UN sanctions to take effect.
We need to deploy every diplomatic effort to close other loopholes which have enabled the Kim regime to survive, including ending Kim’s ability to send Korean laborers abroad to remit foreign currency, and exporting coal under a “humanitarian” exception to the existing UN ban on coal exports. Ninety-five percent of the foreign currency earned by Kim from North Korea’s coal exports fuel his nuclear weapons program. The UN sanctions package unanimously adopted by the Security Council over the weekend only cuts North Korea’s foreign currency access by about one-third — not enough to cause the necessary regime pain and suffering to take effect.
Solution? No. But just examine the alternatives. Moreover, who can rest well knowing that the vacationing Trump lies in bed each morning watching “Fox & Friends” as its hosts taunt him to erratically react to every threat that Kim enjoys lobbing our way. How about cutting the cable at Bedminster, for starters!