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.