“Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall—and crazy,” as Fareed Zakaria once noted. Thus, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in December called North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program—which according to American intelligence still probably lacks the capacity to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon—“the most destabilizing development, I think, in the post-World War II period.” More destabilizing, evidently, than Stalin or Mao’s far larger nuclear arsenals; or the break-up of the British, French, and Soviet empires; or the rise of China; or a changing climate that could soon make major cities uninhabitable. If Pyongyang’s nuclear program is allowed to proceed, McMaster continued, North Korea—whose GDP is one-50th the size of South Korea’s and which spends one-fifth as much on its military—might “reunify the [Korean] peninsula under the red banner.”
Depicting North Korea’s nuclear program as an expression of its geopolitical might is exactly wrong. The program is actually a result of the North’s extraordinary weakness. Which is why the Trump administration’s strategy of threatening Pyongyang with war—and making it feel even more imperiled—is exactly the wrong way to curb its nuclear program. Kim Jong Un possesses nuclear weapons, above all, to deter an American attack. Thus, the best way to limit his arsenal is to help him deter such an attack without nukes. That’s the rationale behind Naval War College Professor Lyle Goldstein’s wildly counterintuitive, and oddly compelling, proposal: The United States should ask China and Russia to deploy troops on North Korean soil.