- By Jon WolfsthalJon Wolfsthal is a globally recognized expert on nuclear weapons and nonproliferation policy. A nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he was President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He is the former deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He has served on site in North Korea, helped negotiate an arms control agreement with Russia, and served as Vice President Joe Biden’s nuclear security advisor from 2009 to 2012.
I grew up in New York, just like President Donald Trump did, so perhaps like me he became a Star Trek fan watching reruns on WPIX at 11 p.m. every weeknight. If so, hopefully he knows about the Kobayashi Maru — a test every Starfleet cadet takes to experience a no-win scenario. If unfamiliar with the Kobayashi Maru, Trump may soon learn the lesson a different way as he decides how to manage the persistent challenge of North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programs.
Frankly, I’m surprised Trump has not been forced to take the test already. While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been patient, this is unlikely to last for long. All indications are that Kim can test at any time a long-range missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States. Perhaps he is waiting to see what Trump does. More likely, he is allowing the slow-moving train wreck that is South Korea politics to play out. But instead of using this interval to calm U.S. allies and plan for the inevitable provocation, Trump decided to do the one thing we knew would make North Korea want to test a missile sooner rather than later: He dared Kim to do it —
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
— and in so doing drew the new administraion’s first of two “red lines.”
North Korea probably acquired enough plutonium to achieve its ends in 1991. Since then, despite persistent efforts to put the genie back into the bottle, the program has grown steadily. China, at times, has helped pressure North Korea, but has never done enough to make North Korea negotiate in earnest. Beijing fears a collapsed North Korea more than a nuclear North Korea. And while some experts thought that Trump might be onto something by calling out China and making it feel less comfortable with the North Korean status quo, since then Trump has shown, to extend the Star Trek metaphor, that he is more of an emotional and angry Klingon without a clear plan, as compared to a repressed and logical Vulcan like President Barack Obama.
So, this leaves us with a no-win scenario in which two untested leaders with nuclear weapons will seek to outdo each other. Sadly, and not for lack of looking, the choices available to the United States remain of the no-win variety. From bad to worse, they include:
1) Send down a landing party. Many respected experts have called for the United States to directly engage North Korea and seek a freeze on its program in advance of full elimination. This would require accepting — at least for now — North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. Maybe, the argument goes, the United States could convince North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs by freezing both sanctions and military training with Seoul. Such a trade would undermine U.S. security and the U.S. alliance with Seoul. In response, South Korea would likely repeat its request that the United States return nuclear weapons to the peninsula, or worse, perhaps Seoul would take Trump up on his suggestion that South Korea just go nuclear. But even this is a false choice, since North Korea is unlikely to declare and open up all of its nuclear facilities to inspectors, meaning a freeze would be based on Pyongyang’s word. Keep in mind that North Koreans have cheated on more agreement than Star Trek’s Romulans. Illogical choice, Captain.
2) Even less appealing: Heap more pressure on North Korea until it cries uncle or collapses. Obama several times looked at all possible options but rejected the extreme option of placing maximum pressure — including a blockade on North Korea to stop access to money, food, and needed natural resources — a Tholian Web of sanctions and interdiction. While the United States did keep ramping up sanctions, and there is more that can be still be done, this extreme option was rejected because even with a naval blockade, overland trade with China would be impossible to stop. Without full Chinese cooperation, such an effort would be ineffective. So even this would be unable to keep North Korea from advancing its programs and defying Trump’s red line.
3) Worse still is the option chest-thumpers seem to like the most: Provoke North Korea into firing its missiles and hope that U.S. missile defenses provide protection. Full power to the forward shields? Too bad the $250 billion invested in missile defenses since President Ronald Reagan fell in love with the Star Wars (clash of the franchises) has yet to produce a reliable system to shoot down long-range missiles. The United States does have some basic systems in Alaska, but despite the best efforts of multiple presidents, these systems are effective less than half of the time. I am not sure that even Trump is prepared to protect American lives on a coin flip.
4) At the end of this simulation comes the doomsday machine: regime change. In the minds of some Trump advisors, and the neoconservatives lurking, this remains the only option. Sure, Iraq was a disaster, they’ll say, but in North Korea the United States has no other choice and will do it better this time. Besides, the logic goes — once the Chinese know this is going to happen, they will go in themselves to mop up the place. They’d never let South Korea or the United States occupy or reunite North and South. Like the old Scottish saying goes: Fool me once….
All of these options are bad, which is why Obama sought, without success, to rely on strategic patience. No one who worked on this issue for the past eight years is satisfied with the outcome, but Obama’s choice — given the ones above — was understandable. So I sympathize with the choices that the current administration must now face. The Obama administration made great progress by keeping allies close and by drawing China in so that it saw North Korea, and not the United States, as the problem to be solved. Now, it seems, Trump — like Captain Kirk — hopes to reprogram the simulator and beat the Kobayashi Maru. But it is just as likely that he, and we, lose.
I say this with no joy or comfort. I’ve personally been involved in trying to address and reverse North Korea’s capabilities most of my adult life. I spent New Year’s Eve at North Korea’s nuclear development center at Yongbyon when the country’s nuclear program was frozen under the now defunct Agreed Framework. And I sat through countless interagency and cabinet-level meetings as the Obama administration worked to simultaneously pressure China into pressing North Korea, reassure U.S. allies of America’s commitment to their security, and plan for the worst should efforts to pressure and deter North Korea fail. There are no easy answers, and in the end no good ones. But that is part of the job Trump has been elected to handle. I wish it were only a simulator, but the North Korea no-win scenario is already real.
Photo credit: CBS/Paramount/Foreign Policy illustration