North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons short of war. Diplomacy, however, can improve the terms of an eventual deal. A nuclear-armed North Korea is a frightening thought, but we are probably past the point where a military solution is bearable.
It’s hard to believe that the United States or any country has the military wizardry needed to take out, cleanly and without massive casualties, North Korea’s nuclear weapons or its missiles or its artillery aimed at Seoul, a metropolitan area of 24 million people. Yours truly is no scientist, however, and I might be wrong. In that case, the U.S. should be willing to take out both sets of weapons, but only after engaging in the following actions. These actions are also our best options in case I am right about the grim results of an attempt to take North Korea’s terrible weapons out.
The actions are:
- Continue to consult with our regional allies, especially Japan and South Korea.
- Continue to tighten sanctions, as the Trump administration has been doing.
- Do everything we can to cut off North Korea’s access to financing, whether that financing comes through legitimate or illegitimate channels.
- Continue the current campaign to close down North Korean diplomatic and business activities around the world.
- Step up cyber sabotage against North Korea.
- Increase pressure on China to cut trade ties with North Korea.
- Do everything possible—if anything is possible—to support opposition to Kim Jong-un within North Korea, particularly opposition within the elite.
- Signal both North Korea and China that our goal is not to put North Korea out of business or to reunite the Korean peninsula (desirable as that might be), but merely to stop North Korea’s nuclear program or its proliferation to North Korea’s allies and business partners abroad.
- Build up our anti-missile defenses both for the U.S. and U.S. territories abroad and for our allies in Asia.
- Build up U.S. conventional forces in East Asia.
These measures will squeeze North Korea but they won’t achieve the desired goal of denuclearization. In fact, nothing short of war is liable to achieve that goal. And that’s a terrible conclusion, because North Korea will not necessarily behave like a conservative, responsible party, or a “satiated power,” as Bismarck claimed Germany was after 1871, if it is allowed to survive as a nuclear state. In fact, it is likely to proliferate nuclear weapons abroad, encourage further opposition to the United States, engender the nuclearization of Japan and South Korea, and maybe even engage in its long-term aim of invading South Korea. One fears that, as a dictator, Kim Jong-un will be more like Mussolini or Hitler than Franco—that is, a man given to risk-taking and glory seeking rather than to standing pat behind his nation’s borders.
But at least by putting the squeeze on him diplomatically we might be in a position to negotiate better terms. Of course, as I said at the outset, I’m no expert on the weapons involved. If I am wrong and if we are indeed able to take out North Korea’s weapons without massive casualties, then, and only after taking the steps above, the U.S. should do so.