How to Reason With a Nuclear Rogue
To stop North Korean nukes, the United States should learn from its own history with China.
A country bent on threatening the United States with annihilation develops nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them from Asia to the U.S. homeland, putting America and its allies, including Japan and South Korea, at grave risk. It is clear that only grave consequences will come from ignoring this danger any longer, but taking military action in the vain attempt to eliminate the program threatens to provoke unspeakable destruction.
No, this is not an assessment of North Korea in 2017, but of China in 1964, the year China first tested a nuclear weapon. Then, it was called Red China, and was widely considered part of a communist wave bent on global domination. You think North Korean leader Kim Jong Un says crazy things? Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared, “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left.”
Then, as now, voices called for strength and resolve and pushed for military action to surgically remove the nuclear capability our enemy had developed. Failure to act, it was argued, would create a near-certain risk of nuclear destruction. At a minimum, the United States would be under constant threat of nuclear blackmail, undermining the security of our allies in East Asia so greatly that they themselves would surely have to go nuclear.
Of course, deterrence did work, the countries avoided war, and America and its allies learned to manage a complex deterrent relationship with China, to our mutual advantage. No one believes we will become strong trading partners with North Korea, but many of the ideas put forward in 1964 are similar to the ones heard today, and need to be taken with a grain of salt. Then, as now, few experts had been to the country in question or met with its leaders, and little was known about what it really wanted and how it would act over the long-term.
I have written before about the terrible problem President Donald Trump and the United States inherited on North Korea. It is worse than the terrible problem President Barack Obama inherited from President George W. Bush, which was worse than the one Bush inherited from President Bill Clinton. There are no easy solutions to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something.
Nine months ago, I also helped write the transition memo to Trump (sorry, no link to this one) and his incoming national security team, which made these terrible choices clear. The incoming team understood that Kim Jong Un’s programs were progressing despite the United States doing every responsible thing it could to impede their advance. The incoming team also knew that we had more ways to put pressure on China. Those steps, now under consideration, might yet bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
This is where the problem goes from occupational hazard of being president to self-inflicted wound. Well aware of North Korea’s program and trajectory, Trump tweeted in January that a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile “won’t happen.” He staked the credibility of his office and country on this claim and was wrong, severely straining our believability not only in Asia, but globally. Obama received a lot of criticism for his Syrian “red line.” Despite the removal of many tons of chemical weapons from Syria, the consequences of Obama’s actions, or lack of them, in Syria are part of his legacy. When a president makes declaratory statements, he is spending America’s hard-won reputation. While Trump took widely supported action in response to a chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, other bluffs have been called with no response. None of these bluffs have been more visible and ill-advised than the one called by North Korea on July 4, when the country tested a missile with intercontinental range. But North Korea is not the only country watching and learning.
Kim has decided that his survival depends on possessing long-range missiles that can target the United States. While the United States has taken steps that have slowed this program down and made it more expensive and less reliable, nothing can prevent North Korea from further developing its missile and nuclear programs unless the North wants to stop. While military strikes could slow the program down, such strikes would certainly unleash a second Korean War, devastating a country we are legally bound to protect and defend.
China has been perpetually unwilling, without facing restrictions on its access to the U.S. banking system, to put enough pressure on North Korea to force it to confront a real choice on its nuclear and missile efforts. Recent steps by the Trump administration to ratchet up the pressure on China are welcome, but too late to head off the ICBM Kim sought for so long. It remains to be seen, even if faced with a more stark choice between business with the United States or North Korea, how far China would go in risking the collapse of the North Korean state on its border. The most pressing problem is not how to stop the program, but how to deal with its existence.
Having analyzed North Korea’s program for close to 30 years, I am now unclear on what America’s current policy toward North Korea is. The confused response to date by the Trump team is clear cause for concern among our allies in the region. And if someone who has worked on Korean policy for decades is unsure what we are doing, how can we expect North Korea to accurately understand what we are up to, where our priorities lie, and what our endgame is?
Now that Trump’s bluff has been called, what credibility do deterrent statements to North Korea or reassurance statements to our allies have? Trump may well feel he has to respond forcefully to compensate for his gaffe, but even if he ignores it entirely, our friends and enemies won’t. The job of deterrence and reassurance is a lot harder today under Trump than it was just a few days ago.
As with China 50 years ago, the situation leaves only one real option: deterrence. North Korea is not a suicidal state. Far from it. Their pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles appears driven, as far as we can divine, from a desire to preserve the regime. What remains unclear is how North Korea will behave now that it has demonstrated an ability to hit U.S. territory. The answer may be: It will behave similarly to how it has behaved for decades, in light of its ability to deter a U.S. conventional attack by holding Japan and South Korea hostage. The North has avoided steps that risk full-scale war, but is eager to undermine the U.S.-South Korean alliance, and damage the leadership in South Korea, including through blatant acts of aggression. But the American security community has been focused for so long on negotiating an end to North Korea’s program that we have not done the hard work of figuring out how to successfully manage the much more complex deterrent relationship now emerging.
This situation satisfies no one. It admits that we cannot prevent North Korea from having nuclear capabilities, at least for now. But it does not mean, as others might suggest, that the goal of denuclearizing North Korea is dead. That must remain the goal of the United States and its partners, but we must accept that it will take time to realize, and in the meantime, there are real dangers that must be prevented from unfolding.
First, we must decide what we want to deter North Korea from doing with its newly acquired capabilities. My personal list starts with making clear that North Korea can never use nuclear weapons or missiles, and that it should not conduct any live fire tests with nuclear weapons. With the North having acquired the ability to hit the United States, allies in the region will be concerned about what is known in deterrence speak as “decoupling.” Now that North Korea can hit American territory, leaders in Japan and South Korea will understandably worry whether the United States will trade Seattle to protect Seoul, or risk Los Angeles for Tokyo. Paris and Berlin had the same worry during the cold war, and we eased it only through great effort and investment. Making clear, declaratory statements that America is prepared and willing to back up its allies, and repeating them with conviction, is critical to any successful deterrent and reassurance strategy. Sadly, this is not Trump’s forte. He and his cabinet need to get better at it, and soon.
In addition, U.S. policy should be to consider any attempt by North Korea to sell nuclear weapons or nuclear weapon-usable materials (enriched uranium or plutonium) an act of aggression against the United States that would require a direct response. Similarly, we must determine what we will do if and when North Korea seeks to export its ever-increasing ballistic missile technology, and where we should draw limits on what we will and will not be prepared to accept. North Korea cannot be allowed to become an Amazon.com for any would-be nuclear state.
Lastly, we must make clear that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are not a license to take military action or conduct cyber operations against the United States or its allies. We should and must continue to confront North Korean actions that threaten us or undermine the security of our allies and the stability of the region. These may not require massive military responses, but nuclear weapons for North Korea cannot be tantamount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. Just as with China and the Soviet Union, we must confront the North at the sub-strategic level while working to manage the risk of escalation. I remain skeptical that this will require the United States to redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea, but it will demand greater investments in other capabilities.
At the same time, we have to accept that the game has changed. The dangers of a military conflict between the United States and North Korea have global implications. This means the United States and North Korea must begin immediate talks to avoid such conflicts, and to communicate directly to North Korea’s leaders exactly what actions would require a direct U.S. military response. We have had to do this as other states gained nuclear capabilities, because failure to do so left too much to chance. This is no concession, but self-preservation.
This list is not exhaustive, but the president, his cabinet and advisors, and our leaders in Congress need to begin the long-overdue conversation about what North Korean actions we seek to prevent. Unlike Trump’s tweets, our conclusions need to be specific and we need to back them up, lest confidence in U.S. commitments — to deter our enemies and protect our allies — gets even weaker.
The good news (Korea watchers could all use some) is that U.S. leaders and security officials have dealt with this challenge before. When the Soviet Union crossed the nuclear threshold in 1949, some thought war was inevitable. When China did the same in 1964, similar fatalism was common. The process of nonproliferation has never been a certain one, and now that efforts by four successive U.S. presidents have failed to prevent North Korea from directly threatening the United States, we need to to begin seeking to understand the country we are dealing with and to ensure that it understands us.
Photo credit: AFP/KCNA via KNS/Getty Images