Learning to Live with a Nuclear N Korea: Awful, but Better than the Alternatives
We live Pakistani nuclear missiles; we can live with North Korean ones too.
This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the New York Daily News a few weeks ago, at the peak of the summer war-scare.
I argue that we can in fact live with a nuclear missilized North Korea. Yes, that sucks. But all this irresponsible talk that we can’t adapt, that nuclear North Korea is an undeterrable, existential threat is just threat-inflating baloney. We’ve learned to live with nuclear missiles in the hands a Muslim state with a serious jihadi problem. Would America prefer this not to be the case? Yes. But is living with a nuclear Pakistan a better choice than bombing it or sending in US special forces to destroy their nukes? Absolutely. Or we would have done it already.
It’s not clear to me why this is so hard for people to absorb. What is it about North Korea that makes people lose their mind and say bonkers s*** about risking a huge regional war?
The full essay follows the jump.
As the current war-scare with North Korea heats up, it is worth observing that the United States has learned to live with other countries’ nuclear weapons and missiles without a war. As loathsome as North Korea’s domestic politics are, it is not at all clear that North Korea intends to use its nuclear weapons offensively against the United States or American allies in the northeast Asia. As former National Security Advisor Susan Rice put it recently, the United States can “tolerate” a nuclear North Korea.
Language is important here. “Tolerate” does not mean endorse or approve. No one wants North Korea to have nuclear weapons, not even the Chinese, who often abet North Korean bad behavior. But we have little choice. This is teeth-grinding, grudging tolerance, because the other options are so poor. And it does not preclude us from taking actions to defend ourselves and otherwise pressure North Korea.
For convenience, those options might be arrayed along a typical, left-center-right spectrum. Doves on the left would seek engagement and dialogue with the North. They argue that the US and South Korea have demonized North Korea over the years so much, that the North is understandably hostile. George W. Bush famously placed North Korea on an ‘axis of evil’ and said he ‘loathed’ Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea itself routinely claims that the US pursues a ‘hostile policy’ toward it, and that it needs nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantee against American-led regime change. The Kims have been quite explicit that they do not wish to meet the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Kaddifi. The South Korean left has sought a dovish engagement policy for years, peaking in the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ from 1998-2008. The most prominent figure of such thinking is the current liberal South Korean president, Moon Jae In.
Hawks on the right would argue that military action must be contemplated, because North Korea is the most dangerous state in history to possess nuclear weapons. These critics would suggest that engagement is a ruse, that North Korea cheated on the ‘Sunshine Policy,’ and that Pyongyang’s brutal, gangsterish dictatorship cannot be trusted to have the world’s most powerful weapons. Indeed the ruling Kim family may not even be rational. They may use these weapons offensively against the United States, or to coerce Korean unification on Northern terms. The most prominent figure making such arguments in the United States today is probably John Bolton.
Centrists – the position taken here – would argue that engagement with North Korea has traditionally failed, and that military action is too risky. Doves have indeed struggled to show results from engagement or negotiation. Talks with North Korea often seem to drag on forever, with constant trickery and backsliding on the North Korean side. The last serious US-North Korean deal, struck in 2012, began to unravel within weeks because of North Korean noncompliance. Talks in the Bush years also seemed to go nowhere. On the South Korean side, the Sunshine Policy, despite great commitment from Seoul, yielded little, and Moon’s recent, renewed effort at outreach has been batted away by Pyongyang.
Trying to talk to North Korea is always a good idea. As Winston Churchill said, ‘jaw jaw is better than war war.’ But we must go in with deep skepticism. We must not allow talks to become an end in themselves, a play for time by North Korea to continue developing its weapons. Nor must talks degenerate into subsidies to a dictatorship as an effort to ‘buy’ good behavior from North Korea. This is ultimately what undid the Sunshine Policy. So in this current crisis, we should support Secretary of State Tillerson’s efforts. He said to Pyongyang just a few days ago, ‘we are not your enemy,’ in an effort to draw out the North. But after decades of effort, our expectations of engagement should be low.
Hawks have similarly struggled to find an answer to the North Korean conundrum. Force is an attractive option for a superpower. The US has the world’s best military, and it is tempting to use that powerful leverage, as President Trump seems to be hinting. We do this frequently in the Middle East, where we have used invasion, special forces, and drones to pursue our opponents. But that is feasible there, because the US is relatively secure from counter-strikes, other than limited terrorist action. In the Korean case, North Korea has significant capabilities to do great damage to our allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, and perhaps now to the US homeland itself via its emergent intercontinental ballistic missiles. South Korea is especially vulnerable. Its capital, Seoul, lies just twenty miles from the demilitarized zone border. Some twenty million people live in Seoul and its nearby cities. Were the North Koreans to retaliate against an American airstrike, they could do great damage to Seoul, potentially killing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands if they used nuclear weapons. As North Korea’s missile tests have accelerated, Pyongyang can now range Japan’s cities too, plus, perhaps, American cities. All this means that North Korea could respond devastatingly to an American airstrike.
This knowledge has stayed the hand of American and South Korean planners for decades. North Korea has provoked the US and South Korea plenty. There have been repeated North Korean provocations which could reasonably have warranted South Korean and/or American counterstrikes. In 1968, 1969, 1976, 1987, and 2010 occurred the worst North Korean provocations of the decades-long Korean division. Despite casualties and heated debate in South Korean and American media over the need to ‘finally’ punish North Korea, no action was taken. This was not from reticence – the US has been more than willing to pursue an aggressive drone war in the Middle East – but rather from the exposure of millions of innocent South Koreans and Japanese to North Korean retaliation.
Kinetic options have other downsides the Trump administration would be wise to contemplate before it unleashes the bombers. North Korea has been tunneling since the 1960s to prepare for just such an American air campaign. The US punishingly bombed North Korea during the Korean War, 1950-1953. Over a million died. North Korean planners learned that lesson and have been digging ever since. This means that any airstrike on North Korea would not look like what we have become accustomed to in the Middle East. There could be no limited cruise missile or drone strike which could be wrapped up in a day. Instead, North Korea’s decades-old hardening would require an extensive air campaign, involving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of air sorties, pursuing dozens of targets. We would call it a ‘surgical strike’ before global public opinion, but in practice it would be a war.
Once the bombs started to fall, the North Koreans would move everything underground, requiring yet more airstrikes. They would also use human shields, with grandmothers and infants placed around any targets which could not be moved below ground. Pictures of dead innocents would immediately be broadcast globally.
Finally, the North Koreans have a defensive alliance with China. China would not support North Korean aggression against the South or US, but it would, technically, be required to help North Korea if it were attacked. And an American air campaign would look so much like a war – no matter what we call it – that North Korea would almost certainly call on its ally for help. We do not actually know the redlines of that alliance. Perhaps China would abandon North Korea. But China intervened in 1950 to bail out North Korea as it began to lose the Korean War, and its strategists still refer to North Korea today as a ‘buffer’ between China and the robust democracies of South Korea, Japan, and America. Were China to enter the war on Pyongyang’s side, that could be disastrous. Americans and Chinese shooting at each other could easily spiral into a major regional, or even global, conflict sucking in Russia, whose Siberian backyard extends all the way to east Asia, and Japan as well.
These combined risks are so high that centrists reject the use of force as too risky, at the same time they grasp the general futility of negotiating with North Korea. The answer then is an unsatisfying ‘more of the same.’ For 64 years, deterrence and defense have worked on the peninsula. For all the tension, cable news hysteria, and North Korean provocation, the Korean War has not returned. Deterrence has been stable, however morally unsatisfying we find that, because it allows vicious North Korea to hang on.
North Korean nuclearization does not fundamentally change this. The United States already lives in a permanent nuclear deterrence relationship with Russia and China, and we have for decades. We have adapted ourselves, however grudgingly, to those countries’ nuclear missilization. The Cuban Missile Crisis is remembered as an American victory over the Soviet Union, but within a decade the Soviets had the ability to strike the US homeland without Cuba. We have lived with that, plus later Chinese and Pakistani nuclearization. This was unwanted, but, as with North Korea, the alternatives, particularly the military ones, were simply too risky. We learned to tolerate, just as Rice suggests we now do with North Korea.
This is depressing, but nonetheless the likely outcome of the current crisis. Trump may bluster and threaten, but I have little doubt his national security staff has warned him of the great risks of a strike. Nor should we think that North Korea intends to use these weapons to offensively strike the US. The American retaliation for an out-of-the-blue Northern strike would be devastating. North Korea as a functioning state would be utterly destroyed, and its elite killed. And that elite is not suicidal ideologues. They are not ISIS or Osama bin Laden. If they wanted to go down in a blaze of anti-American glory, they could have done so at any time of the last few decades. They wish to survive.
Sticking to the deterrence posture we have pursued since 1953 is not passivity in the face of threat. We can, and likely will, put resources into missile defense. If the North insists on missilization, then we should respond in kind with a ‘roof.’ And we can continue to pursue ever-tightening sanctions, which even China recently supported, to constrict North Korea’s pipeline to the global economy. North Korea’s gangster elite enjoys a life of privilege which requires that pipeline, as do its nuclear and missile programs. Going after their money and access will hurt.
If this feels unsatisfying or disappointing, it is. There is no silver bullet regarding North Korea. Were there, we would have used it long ago. North Korean nuclear missiles are a fact we can either adapt to, or risk a major war over. The US has, despite all our power, not risked that war to date, and I imagine Donald Trump will not in the end either.