America Can’t Do Much About North Korea

But whatever it can do, it will need China.

North Korean special forces soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017.
North Korean special forces soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017. (Damir Sagolj / Reuters)

When asked by the Financial Times on April 2 about working with China to reduce the nuclear threat from North Korea, President Donald Trump replied: “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” Quite how this would be done, the president declined to divulge.

In the weeks that followed, the hostile standoff in Northeast Asia heated up. As a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier sped towards the Korean peninsula, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un celebrated the “Day of the Sun” (the day before Easter Sunday) by standing on a platform for hours reviewing a parade of long-range missiles, scuds, and other  hardware. The launch of a ballistic missile on that same morning, however, ended in failure, as the weapon blew up as soon as it took off.

The world is slowly adjusting to Trump's bluster. Often, he appears not to know what he is talking about. It may well be that a word in his ear from a U.S. admiral, or Chinese President Xi Jinping, or his son-in-law Jared Kushner, the real-estate heir put in charge of world affairs, could soften his bellicose tone. But words or tweets, however hasty or ill-conceived, coming from the White House, do matter. The last thing needed in the fraught situation in Northeast Asia, where military action could spiral into catastrophe, is more macho posturing. (Enough such bluster is already blowing in from Pyongyang: In a recent set of photographs, Kim Jong Un, dressed to resemble his grandfather Kim Il Sung, stands in front of nuclear warheads and threatens to unleash “pre-emptive nuclear strikes” against Japan or even the United States.)

America doesn’t know exactly what North Korea's nuclear capability is, but it is likely sufficient to kill millions of South Koreans or Japanese. That North Korea would be smashed in retaliation is no consolation. The fact is that there is nothing much America can do about Kim’s attempts to develop nuclear-tipped missiles, especially without China’s support. Even Trump, his brilliance notwithstanding, must realize that some problems just cannot be “solved.”

The litany of futile diplomatic overtures to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions reads like a history of failure. In 1994, President Bill Clinton promised aid to North Korea in exchange for a promise to freeze its nuclear program. In 2002, it became clear that the North Koreans had reneged on the deal. The thing is that Kim will not give up his nuclear arsenal, for it is all he has got. Without the bomb, North Korea would be no more than a small, impoverished dictatorship. With nuclear missiles, it can behave as a major power, or more importantly, hold other major powers at bay.

Clinton also once considered bombing North Korean nuclear installations, but, in the end, considered the risk too high. It would be even higher now. Not only are such installations now more dispersed throughout the country, making a clean hit very difficult, but the “collateral damage” inflicted by a cornered Northern regime would be horrendous: Seoul is a mere 35 miles from the North Korean border.

Empty threats from Washington are not just ineffectual; they play into the Korean dictator’s hands. Whether most North Koreans really worship the Kim dynasty as much as they seem to is hard to know, since most of “these gestures of idolatry” are coerced. But Korean nationalism can be very easily stirred up. One thing that holds North Koreans together is the fear, constantly stoked by the regime, of a wicked foreign attack.

China is the only power with any influence in North Korea, but the last thing Beijing wants is for its communist neighbor to collapse. The Kim regime may be annoying, but a united Korea filled with U.S. military bases would be worse, not to mention the potential refugee crisis on China’s borders.

Perhaps a cyber attack could disrupt the North Korean nuclear program, but it would not be enough to rid of the threat altogether. So there appears to be little choice but to live with North Korea as a nuclear power. Pressing the Chinese to force their ally to give up its nuclear arms is useless. The best that can be hoped for is that China makes sure the North Koreans don’t actually use them.

Cooperating with China in this matter should not be so difficult, for the dirty secret in Northeast Asia is that everyone would really prefer to maintain the status quo. South Koreans tell themselves that unification of the motherland is their highest goal, but not at any price. It would be wonderful, of course, if a bloodless revolution could unite the two Koreas in a peaceful liberal democracy, as happened in Germany.

But it is impossible to see how this could happen—North Korea is no East Germany. There is no Gorbachev to keep violence in check. And it was hard enough for the West Germans to absorb their former Communist compatriots. The South Koreans could certainly not afford to do so. In the unlikely event of a peaceful unification, the Americans and Japanese would probably be stuck footing much of the bill.

Since even President Trump, once the situation has been explained to him, would probably be unwilling to risk a devastating war to force a change in the status quo, a nuclear-armed North Korea is here to stay. This is dangerous. Everything must be done to stop the North Koreans from selling their weapons abroad. For this reason alone, Chinese cooperation is essential.

So the situation is bad. But the world will have to live with it. Unfortunately, so do the people unlucky enough to have been born in North Korea. Living under a brutal dictatorship is a terrible fate. But even that is better than dying in a nuclear war.