The North Korean nuclear crisis has been a generation in the making. Decades of failed diplomacy, broken promises, and distrust have led Northeast Asia seemingly to the brink of catastrophe. For years, critics have warned that current approaches to denuclearization weren’t working and that the risks of war were growing, especially as Kim Jong Un became more aggressive with his missile launches. Yet the international community maintains that peaceful, negotiated denuclearization of North Korea is possible. As Kim marches relentlessly toward full nuclear capability, it’s time for a new realism on Pyongyang’s nukes. We realistically face just two options: either we compel Kim to give up his weapons, or we accept the existence of a North Korean nuclear arsenal.
Compulsion, of course, means the use of force. We have long passed the point where the global community could hope that dialogue, bribery, or even coercion would work. Multiple attempts at buying off the Kim regime, whether through light-water nuclear reactors, food aid, or removal from diplomatic condemnation (such as the list of state sponsors of terrorism) have failed to make a difference. Nor have sanctions, which China, Russia, and others have watered down, had any material effect. In short, no peaceful approach has worked, despite the continuing belief of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others that a “pathway” to a negotiated settlement exists.
Surrender of his nuclear arsenal would mean, for all intents and purposes, the end of Kim Jong Un as leader of North Korea, a fate that he would never accept peacefully. War leading to the removal of the Kim regime would risk the first great-power clash since 1945, as China is unlikely to sit on the sidelines and watch the toppling of North Korea and the emergence of a potentially unified, pro-Western Korean peninsula. Unlike in 1945, when the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to let the Red Army enter Berlin first, we could see a mad scramble for Pyongyang between Chinese and American troops, unless Washington and Beijing closely coordinate responses.
Nor could Washington be certain that its main regional allies, South Korea and Japan, would enter the war. Already, new South Korean president Moon Jae-In has declared a “veto” over unilateral American military action on the peninsula. Depending on how conflict broke out, Seoul and Tokyo might conclude that it was American rashness that forced the issue, and that they were better off declaring their neutrality (which would also serve to rupture their alliances with Washington). Whether such an approach would spare them the fury of North Korean missiles is beside the point.
Finally, preventive war remains a politically unpalatable option in post-Iraq America, even apart from the inherent risk it entails. The American public understands the danger of North Korean nukes, especially as Kim’s intercontinental ballistic missiles could soon potentially target U.S. cities, but it does not consider North Korea an existential political threat. Pyongyang is not Moscow during the Cold War; no domino-effect argument exists to persuade the American public in favor of intervention. An aversion to large-scale entanglements and preventive war, such as America experienced after Vietnam and is experiencing again today, is almost guaranteed to undercut support for forceful action against Kim.
Given these factors, and despite the tough rhetoric coming from the White House, the Pentagon, and the UN, it remains highly unlikely that the Trump administration will go to war with North Korea, short of a terrible miscalculation committed by either side. This is where the administration’s fiery words, including UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement that Kim Jong Un is “begging for war,” are risky. If Kim takes these statements seriously enough, he might decide that an attack, however improbable, is actually imminent, leading him to make the first move. That would most likely mean a massive artillery attack on Seoul, plunging the peninsula into full-scale war. Yet, if the administration’s words ring hollow, then U.S. credibility is further undermined, emboldening Kim to consider how he can further use his nuclear and ICBM capability to threaten his neighbors and Washington. No wonder the diplomats at Foggy Bottom refer to North Korea as “the land of no good options.”
If Trump is not really prepared to go to war, then he has one option left: accepting North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Even to suggest such a course is considered heresy in the foreign-policy community—and yet, it is the most plausible scenario, as the risks of a preventive war appear to be too high. The longer the crisis continues, Washington will eventually, and reluctantly, recognize that a cold peace is better than a hot war. The U.S. may cling to its hope for denuclearization and maintain an official refusal to declare North Korea a nuclear state, but it will be forced to accept Kim’s nuclear arsenal. This is the eventuality that Trump should prepare for—assuming that he is not willing to compel Kim to surrender his weapons.
This new reality begins with acknowledging that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons-capable state. Washington can maintain fidelity to the nuclear nonproliferation regime, but the world understands that Kim’s nukes will not be wished away. Moreover, acknowledgment does not mean support or acquiescence; the administration can and should continue to try for more effective sanctions, and it should also keep a channel of communication open to Pyongyang. Yet it is almost impossible to believe that sanctions will cause Kim to give up his program.
Next, and most important, the administration needs to formulate a comprehensive and credible policy of deterrence and containment. The United States has been “deterring” North Korea for decades, of course, but in this new era, that goal requires not only nuclear credibility, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis laid out recently, but also a major rethinking, based on understanding the survival instinct of the Kim regime. The new approach must explain how and when the United States will respond to North Korean provocation and aggression, whether nuclear or conventional.
It’s crucial that our allies not interpret this new policy as U.S. surrender, which could quickly undermine American credibility and prove as destructive as a rush to war. The U.S. must carefully coordinate its deterrence-and-containment approach with our Asian allies and ensure that they understand that America will not abandon them.
To make this policy credible, the U.S. should pair it with a serious program of national missile defense. The best way to dampen Kim’s nuclear threat is to remove his ability to strike American territory or interests. An expanded U.S. military build-up in Asia, including deploying more advanced fighter aircraft and another aircraft carrier, would underscore our commitment to keeping the nuclear peace. Trump’s encouraging South Korea and Japan to purchase more advanced U.S. weaponry makes good sense.
No one can pretend that establishing the most tenuous kind of détente is an optimal outcome. But if such an approach resolutely keeps Kim contained, it will be preferable to war. It is also the most likely outcome—and this being the case, the U.S. should begin preparing now, rather than scrambling to respond when our war-making bluff is called.
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