The question, “Are both North Korean possession of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles and the threat of a North Korean conventional strike on Seoul unacceptable risks in dealing with Kim Jong-un?” is phrased badly. The U.S government has accepted, accepts, and gives no sign of ceasing to accept 1) North Korea’s capacity to deliver nuclear warheads onto U.S soil, as well as to devastate Seoul. North Korea developed these capabilities and weapons within the context and constraints of basic U.S. policy, which is not about to change; 2) North Korea is, as ever, a pawn of China (and of the USSR/Russia to a lesser extent). North Korea is as unimportant in and of itself as it was in 1950. But, because it is a pawn, the U.S. government has proved incompetent in dealing with it.
North Korea survived 1950 because the U.S. government did not want to risk “a wider war.” To avoid trouble with its patrons, the U.S. did not use any of the next four decades’ countless opportunities to throttle and starve it. Instead, as the little monster started building nuclear weapons and missiles, the U.S. fed it. Our “best and brightest” also tailored America’s missile defense system against North Korea to be marginal, because to have done more would have made it capable of defending against China and Russia. Hence, a tiny semi-starved country is on the cusp of overwhelming everything we’ve got by way of missile defense, built at a cost of some $80 billion. North Korea’s relatively cheap missiles are on track to overwhelm our ill-conceived, prohibitively expensive Alaska and California based interceptors intended as token defenses of U.S. soil. Our excellent interceptors aboard AEGIS ships are hobbled in their defense of U.S. troops and allies in the region because their information systems must wait for missiles and warheads to come over the horizon. The missile defense supplemental pending in Congress adds to these programs without fixing their basic problems.
But the prospect of North Korean ordnance exploding on our soil should not trouble our sleep. The Kim regime built these weapons principally to deter and blackmail Americans and our Pacific allies, not to kill them. Preserving the regime is their purpose. No one doubts that they would negate that purpose the moment they were used.
Nevertheless, North Korea’s demonstration of America’s incompetence is a catastrophe of historic proportions because it is unraveling three generations of Pax Americana in the Pacific. North Korea’s weapons speak loudly with facts what China suggests ever more persuasively to the region’s nations: If the Americans can’t protect themselves against North Korea, never mind against us, what makes you think they can protect you at all? China’s strategy does not aim at war. Rather, it tries to anticipate and preclude it by gaining ever more unassailable advantages.
Our options are straightforward: to act militarily in the Western Pacific more or less as we have, or, recognizing what China’s strategy—with North Korea’s help—has done, is doing, and will do to us, to build such defenses for ourselves and for our allies as to moot that strategy. This will take deeds, including but not limited to: imposing on North Korea a secondary trade embargo plus a naval blockade, fortifying Taiwan, and building a U.S. missile defense worthy of the name. The choice is not whether we declare what is being done to us as unacceptable. It is whether we are willing to change our ways enough to stop it.
It is as if someone were to ask a sufferer from type 2 diabetes whether his troubles are unacceptable. Since the disease follows mostly from the excess of food and the dearth of exercise, the real question is whether he will maintain his life-style, or reverse it.