Speaking before the UN General Assembly today, President Donald Trump announced that, unless North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, “the United States will have no choice but to totally destroy” the country. He sounded almost excited as he threatened, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
North Korea is a serious problem, and not one of Trump’s making—the last four American presidents failed to impede North Korea’s progress towards a nuclear weapon. President George H.W. Bush took unilateral action, removing U.S. nuclear weapons and reducing America’s troop levels in the region, hoping to incentivize good behavior; Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to negotiate restrictions; President Barack Obama mostly averted his eyes. North Korea defied them all.
Those four presidents hesitated to bring a forceful end to the North Korean nuclear program, because there is no good policy move for Washington to make. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis has repeatedly emphasized, a war on the Korean peninsula would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” The inescapable constraint on U.S. action is, of course, that the capital of South Korea lies in range of the 8,000 artillery pieces North Korea has aimed at its kin. Even if the United States could pull off a military campaign of exceptional virtuosity—identifying all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, targeting dispersing mobile launchers, knocking hundreds of missiles out of the sky before they reach their targets in Korea, Japan, and America, and destroying North Korean conventional forces along the Demilitarized Zone in the first couple of hours of a preventative attack—hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would likely die. Americans, too, would perish, since more than 130,000 of them reside in South Korea. The more likely course, as Vipan Narang and Ankit Panda have argued, would be North Korea launching on warning—“fail deadly” (as opposed to fail safe) mode. That would drive the numbers much, much higher.
Nor is a negotiated settlement likely. North Korea’s leaders are unmoved by the domestic or international costs of their nuclear program. The list of agreements violated by the Kim regime is long and distinguished: two IAEA safeguards, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the denuclearization agreement, the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2005 joint statement, the 2007 and 2012 agreements. And they kept the gas pedal pressed to the floor on their long-range missile programs, conducting 15 missile tests in the last year, the most recent evidently intended to demonstrate their ability to reach the U.S. territory of Guam.
China, for its part, holds substantial economic leverage over North Korea, but rarely uses it, either out of concern about the collapse of the Kim regime, or because it considers it in its interests to use it to distract the United States from its intimidating activities in the Asia-Pacific region. It also hopes a Korea crisis will fray America’s alliances in Asia. Pious intonations by the Chinese and Russians of a “freeze for freeze” would reward North Korean aggression while diminishing America’s ability to reassure and protect South Korea.
Yet something must be done. To its credit, the Trump administration has lassoed UN Security Council members into agreeing to two more rounds of sanctions. More importantly, it has continued working in close concert with South Korea and Japan, presenting a united front. Both countries are inching toward collective military action rather than away from the United States as the crisis deepens. South Korea responded to the September 14th launch with its own, near-simultaneous missile launch that demonstrated, according to South Korean defense officials, its ability to unilaterally launch a preemptive attack on North Korea. While Asia hands doubt the effectiveness of extended deterrence, South Korea may well request the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons that would establish parity on the peninsula and mitigate its understandable fears of abandonment.
The signals from the Trump administration suggest that it has grown impatient. After delivering two important, unanimous rounds of UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the path of punitive economic measures is “pretty much exhausted” and the problem should be turned over to the Pentagon. National Security Advisor Lieutenant General McMaster echoed the sentiment, saying “we’re out of road.”
McMaster, in fact, has been almost singlehandedly trying to make the case for military attacks. Again and again, he has emphasized that President Trump won’t allow North Korea to develop the capacity for a nuclear attack on the United States, and that military options remain under consideration. He evidently argued the same case in private, too. Mattis has affirmed that military options are under consideration by Trump. More worrisome, yet, McMaster argued that military action must be on the table if diplomacy cannot keep North Korea from attaining the ability to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, supposedly because Kim Jong Un cannot be deterred. This is exceptionally sloppy thinking. North Korea may not have slowed its development of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, but it has been deterred from attacking South Korea and the United States since 1953.
The White House is conflating the possession of nuclear weapons with their use; its policy would be less likely to result in nuclear war or a humiliating climb down by the president if it distinguished between the having and the using. By predicating its policy on preventing acquisition, the administration has dramatically increased the value to North Korea of its nuclear and ICBM programs. A shrewder course would be underscoring that nuclear weapons make no difference, because any conventional or nuclear attack by North Korea on America or its allies would—as has been the case since 1953—result in the end of the Kim regime. That approach diminishes rather than accentuates the political gain to North Korea of becoming a nuclear possessor.
President Trump took the exact opposite course in his speech today. Moreover, before the entire world, he threatened the destruction of an entire country. Not only does that draw a red line that will be difficult to walk back from; it is also a much less credible and ethical threat than a pledge to more narrowly target the Kim regime. Waging war against people already enslaved by an authoritarian government punishes them unjustly—that would have been an easy point score in front of a UN audience.
The asymmetric threat of regime change is also a more credible military threat than a preventative attack on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, missiles, and those 8,000 or so artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, because it leaves the responsibility on North Korea. It is almost impossible to imagine an American president—even this one—initiating a preventative military campaign that would incur such enormous casualties. The only circumstances in which it would be morally defensible are if the president had reliable intelligence that the North Koreans had a nuclear weapon mated onto an ICBM that was targeted at a U.S. or allied city, and was about to launch. That is, as a preemptive, but not a preventative war.
The reckless language out of the White House, both from the president and the national security advisor, is making a situation with little margin for error even more brittle. It’s deeply unsatisfying to choose to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. But it’s a better choice than the alternatives.