The world long ago grew accustomed to the belligerent behavior of North Korea’s Kim family, so more of their same aggression is hardly a shock. But in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s recent statements threatening North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and his string of World Wrestling Foundation-style taunts, we are all starting to come to terms with the implications of America being led by its own Kim.
Of course, there are limits to the comparison: The American Kim is not committing “crimes against humanity,” enslaving more than 120,000 of his own people in brutal prison camps, and executing his perceived enemies.
And certainly, even though both nation’s leaders are threatening the other with nuclear annihilation, nuclear weapons in the hands of a heinous and ruthless regime like North Korea’s pose a far greater threat to the world. These weapons could be used to blackmail other countries at best and extract revenge during a time of regime collapse at worst.
But the in many ways mirror image leaders of the United States and North Korea are together making a terrible situation even worse.
Trump is correct to recognize that North Korea’s nuclear weapons pose a real threat to the United States and its allies and that it would be ideal if Pyongyang could be somehow convinced to denuclearize. But as I wrote in my CNN Opinion piece last week, the only ways that North Korea will give up its weapons is if its leaders come to believe the cost of maintaining nuclear weapons is greater than the cost of giving them up — or if those leaders are overthrown.
Because nuclear weapons provide North Korea’s regime with far more international leverage, prestige, and security than most any other investment they could make, arriving at this conclusion would require the North Koreans to believe either (1) that the United States would be willing and able to engage in a full-scale preemptive war with North Korea designed to topple the North Korean government and is willing to risk massive US and allied casualties, the destruction of the US-South Korea alliance, and a potential military conflict with China in doing so, or (2) that China would be willing to completely cut off its food, energy, and trade lifeline to North Korea in the absence of denuclearization.
Despite Donald Trump’s absurd, dangerous, and extremely unhelpful huffing and puffing (and tweeting), there is no preemptive military option for the United States other than all out war. That’s why US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has called this possibility “catastrophic” and “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” That’s also why the North Koreans feel so comfortable calling President Trump’s bluff only minutes after he has drawn his red lines. Because preemptive military action is not a credible option, getting China to pressure North Korea to change its behavior is the only logical strategy for the United States and its allies.
Unfortunately, through its strategic incoherence, general incompetence, poor decisions and dangerous bombast, the Trump administration has weakened most of America’s alliances, undermined US credibility, and significantly empowered its adversaries. In spite of the recent UN sanctions, the Trump administration’s overall weakness and perceived untrustworthiness make pressuring China all the more difficult.
It’s not too late for the US to invest in a strategy of pressuring China to do more by raising the costs to China of continuing its tacit support for North Korea, but doing so would require a massive shift in the functioning and behavior of the Trump administration that seems a long way from the current chaos.
Such a policy would require working far more closely and respectfully with allies South Korea and Japan and strengthening missile defense capabilities in both countries that would secondarily undermine China’s own nuclear deterrent, encouraging a Japanese military buildup, building greater leverage with China by resuscitating the strategically critical Trans Pacific Partnership, and a host of other painstaking steps the Trump administration has so far failed to take. This policy would also require meaningful dialogue with Beijing about what might come after a North Korean regime collapse and how Chinese strategic interests could be respected under such a scenario. And America’s President would need to behave less like his North Korean counterpart and more like a responsible leader.
Even with all of this, it would still be tough to convince China to risk the collapse of its North Korean ally unless China comes to believe for its own reasons that it would be better off with a Korea reunified under South Korean law than it would be with the current situation. If logic is a guide, China may someday arrive at this conclusion, but it will probably not be soon.
Regime change could also potentially lead to denuclearization. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s a fair bet the North Korean regime will eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. But the regime has survived over seven decades and totalitarian governments can be remarkably stable, at least until they are not.
Because there are no good options, the most likely outcome of this crisis will be an eventual US policy drift toward a de facto recognition of North Korean nukes and a policy of containment similar in some ways to that once used on the USSR. This will likely lead to a nuclear arms race in Asia and lots of other very bad outcomes, but it may wind up being the only choice for now.
But there’s also the possibility that the hazardous combination of two nuclear powers, the US and North Korea, each led by a bombastic, aggressive leader spouting fighting words to compensate for domestic weakness could increase the chances of dangerous miscalculations and unpredictable outcomes.
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