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Your Apocalyptic Fantasies Aren’t Helping the North Korea Crisis

Stop speculating about nuclear war, and start asking these six questions about the Trump administration’s policies toward Pyongyang.

This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released on Aug. 30 shows North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifting off at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released on Aug. 30 shows North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifting off at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The probability of a U.S. military attack against the territory or assets of nuclear-armed North Korea is higher now than at any point in the past 20 years. Many of the early warning indicators of a war are present: escalatory rhetoric, messaging incoherence, unprecedented military maneuvers, and destabilizing “swaggering” in the form of nuclear tests and missile launches.

What’s been missing amid the name-calling and millenarian fantasies has been a serious debate about the Donald Trump administration’s policies toward North Korea. As a small contribution toward this much-needed debate, I offer six fundamental questions to consider about Washington’s nascent attempts at coercive diplomacy. If you are a congressional member or journalist who has plans to encounter a Trump administration foreign-policy official, I’d encourage you to keep this list handy.

First: Does the United States believe that Kim Jong Un can make rational judgments and decisions? National security advisor H.R. McMaster claimed that “classical deterrence theory” does not apply to the regime in North Korea, giving as evidence its brutal behavior toward its own citizens and threats toward its neighbors. Why domestic brutality or regional threats —  actions that leaders have engaged in to survive and thrive for centuries — would indicate irrationality is unclear. McMaster’s former Army colleague, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, declared in 2012, “we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.” But, if the Trump administration truly does not believe that Kim is capable of reasoning — but rather on a “suicide mission,” in Trump’s words — then there is no point in initiating any negotiations.

Second: What is the minimum change in behavior from North Korea that the United States requires to begin serious negotiations? At various times, Trump administration officials have indicated talks first require a halt to “provocative threats” and ballistic missile launches, and more broadly a halt to their nuclear program. The first is subjective, the second easily observable, but the third perhaps impossible. The United States may not know with certainty every nuclear site and its capabilities, and thus may not know what is the current status of North Korea’s nuclear program. If that is the case, who will comprehensively audit the secretive country’s nuclear program and verify that it remains frozen throughout diplomatic talks?

Third: What is the exact change in North Korea’s behavior that the United States seeks? Secretary of Defense James Mattis and McMaster have indicated that certain behaviors must be prohibited: Mattis has pledged that “Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response,” and McMaster has proclaimed that Trump is “not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States.” North Korea has threatened the United States and its allies for decades, and even since Mattis and McMaster made their statements, making this demand pointless and not credible.

Fourth: What is the exact change in capability that the United States seeks from North Korea? (Incidentally, the Trump administration has been more explicit about what the United States does not seek — namely, regime change and accelerated reunification of Korea — than what it does want.) Several U.S. officials have claimed that they will not accept a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear program, because, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it, “if we freeze where they are today, we freeze their activities with a very high level of capability.” The more maximalist capability demand is for the complete “denuclearization” or “dismantlement” of the nuclear program. This again requires someone to audit the entire program and then verify its irreversible dismantlement. Presumably, this would fall to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which last had direct talks with North Korea 10 years ago, and direct access to its nuclear sites 15 years ago. If the Trump administration thinks the IAEA cannot certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, why would they trust the agency to do so for North Korea?

Fifth: What are the minimum incentives that Kim Jong Un must receive to agree to do this? I have spoken with National Security Council, Pentagon, and State Department officials and staff about North Korea policy. I estimate that 95 percent of their focus is on the latest incremental enhancements in North Korea’s capabilities, with Kim’s intentions and interests almost never considered. They act as if showing an interest in what a brutal dictator wants demonstrates one’s sympathies with him. If you cannot envision your adversary’s perspective, or refuse to even attempt to, you cannot realistically marshal carrots and sticks to change their actions.

Sixth: What is the Trump administration’s approximate deadline for achieving its goals? Administration officials have repeatedly emphasized that there is a “great sense of urgency,” and that “we’re beginning to run out of time.” Since 1993, when the CIA informed President Bill Clinton that North Korea had reprocessed one to two bombs worth of plutonium during the George H.W. Bush administration, every president pledged that North Korea’s nuclear program would not be tolerated and accepted, and every president has tolerated and accepted it. Trump now claims that the complacency of his predecessors will no longer be tolerated and accepted. Why now? And how soon is now?

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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