But just as remarkable as his dismissal of the “bloody nose” buzz was his message that a nuclear-armed North Korea would pose so grave a risk to the United States that, in order to prevent it, the Trump administration is prepared to wage a war against the Kim regime that experts estimate could kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, and escalate into nuclear warfare. Why the U.S. would enter into such a catastrophic conflict in the absence of an actual or imminent North Korean attack is “an equation that only the president could answer,” Risch said. “What you’d be looking at would be on a scale: What are the risks you’re running by not doing it?”
North Korea shouldn’t be lumped together with nuclear powers like Russia and China that have the capacity to nuke the United States but have been deterred from doing so, Risch argued. “I don’t lay awake at night worrying that the United States and Russia are going to get into a fight lobbing nuclear weapons back and forth. … After World War II, when the arms race started, both parties wound up with enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the other party. Both of them realized it, they sat down together, they reached a number of treaties, and they put in place really strict, really clear protocols of telephone calls and communications that will avoid this. Both parties know what the ultimate consequence of [war] is, which is mutual destruction.”
In the case of North Korea, “none of that is in place,” he noted. “What if somebody miscalculates? What if there is an accident? … That is as much a danger as an intentional act. And there’s no protocol in effect for the red phone to ring in the White House and the other one to ring in Pyongyang and say, ‘Hey why don’t we stop and talk about this?’” Russia and China “know exactly what we’re thinking and we know exactly what they’re thinking. With the North Koreans, I listen to what they say but you say to yourself, ‘Can they possibly be thinking like this? And does [Kim Jong Un] really misperceive who he’s dealing with?’ This is a country with pea-shooters taking on a country that’s got the power and force that America does. Now don’t get me wrong: With what they have, they can do tremendous damage right there on the peninsula and for that matter in the whole neighborhood. There’s a lot of countries that they can reach.”
Isn’t the possibility of miscalculation a good argument for talking to the North Koreans, if only to handle crises? “Of course it is,” Risch said. “Civilized people would do that, wouldn’t they?” But North Korea’s “recklessness” and “maliciousness” mean that its leaders are “entirely different than the civilized people we’re dealing with who are nuclear powers,” he said.
Nor does he see much promise for a diplomatic breakthrough resulting from the Olympics. “I subscribe to the president’s theory that talking is good,” he said. “In the middle of the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, all of our cell phones went off at the same time to indicate that the South Koreans had announced that the North Koreans were ready to talk. And we were surprised. Now what does that mean? We don’t know yet. Our history of talking with the North has not been good. … They made demands before they’d even sit down at the table—they wanted food, they wanted oil and fuel, they wanted release of sanctions, and those were all given to them when the talks started last time. That is not going to happen this time.”