Let’s Stop Pretending We Might Fight North Korea

by Benjamin Studebaker

President Trump wants to convince North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un that if he keeps running his jaw, we might fight him:

Many in the press have been happy to jump all over this, acting like the two countries are on the brink of war. But while this sells newspapers and gets clicks, it disinforms the public. Here’s what I think is really going on.

If we wanted to fight North Korea, we could have done that–in 2005. At that point North Korea had a dilapidated conventional military and no nuclear weapons. From a military standpoint, it might have been nearly as easy to overthrow the Kim regime as it was to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But there were a few reasons not to do it:

  1. China opposed reuniting Korea because this would enable the US to potentially station troops right on its border.
  2. It would have led to a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis, which would have been a pain in the neck for both China and South Korea.
  3. It would have cost a lot of money and manpower, and we were already over-committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For these reasons, the Bush administration decided not to take military action. Nor was it willing to offer North Korea enough economic aid to persuade it to give up its nuclear program for good. Without sufficiently powerful carrots or sticks, North Korea continued developing weapons, testing its first bomb in 2006. The first test was a bit of a dud. In its aftermath, the Bush administration tried to get North Korea to agree to suspend its nuclear program in the “six-party talks”. This produced an agreement in 2007, but North Korea unsuccessfully tested a satellite in 2009. The Obama administration determined that this was a violation of the agreement and the UN expanded sanctions against the country. North Korea pulled out of the agreement and, about a month later, tested another nuclear weapon, this time successfully.

Since that test in 2009, the costs of undertaking military action in North Korea have become even more prohibitive. If we were to go after North Korea today, there’s no way to be certain that North Korea would not use nuclear weapons against South Korea or Japan. This has made North Korea almost completely untouchable, and the expansion of its long-range missile capability in recent years (allowing it to potentially strike the United States) underlines this.

This is the whole point of the North Korean nuclear deterrent–North Korea knows that if it has nuclear weapons, no one will mess with it. For years, the United States had a choice when it came to North Korea, but the nuclear deterrent takes away that choice. North Korea has seen what happens to regimes that give up their nuclear weapons or fail to develop them. The Gaddafi regime in Libya gave up its nuclear program in 2003, only to be overthrown with NATO help in 2011. The Hussein regime in Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons and had no means of deterring the United States in 2003. When we negotiate with a would-be nuclear state, what we are really doing is offering them economic goodies if they will allow us to retain the ability to choose whether or not to destroy them at any given moment. They can never be sure that we will continue to supply the goodies and they can never be sure we won’t subsequently decide to destroy them anyway. Dictators know that nuclear weapons are the only way to be sure that the United States will not destroy them, and they’re unlikely to abandon the weapons unless they are economically desperate and need relief from sanctions to prevent internal upheaval. Iran seems to have decided that it needs economic relief to sustain political stability, even if that leaves it open to a greater chance of attack from the west. But North Korea is much more closed off than Iran–its people are much less aware of what they’re missing, they have much lower material expectations, and they are much easier for the regime to keep in line. So North Korea is able to retain political stability even in the face of very heavy economic sanctions, and this gives it little reason to give up its nuclear deterrent unless the benefits we’re offering are truly massive.

So because it has nuclear weapons, North Korea can now be confident that we won’t attack them. By the same token, we know that the Kim regime doesn’t intend to attack South Korea, Japan, or the United States. If North Korea launched some kind of nuclear attack on these countries, the United States and its allies would have nothing to lose. North Korea’s leverage comes from the fact that it could use nuclear weapons on surrounding countries. If it actually does use the weapons, that leverage evaporates and the US and its allies would have no reason not to destroy the regime.

The logic of the situation calls for both North Korea and the United States to develop nuclear weapons and remind each other that they could use them without ever actually doing so. Nothing good could be accomplished for either side by attacking first.

In the 72 years since nuclear weapons were developed, no pair of nuclear states have engaged in full scale war with one another or deployed nuclear weapons against one another. Instead, nuclear states tend to compete economically, waiting for their rivals to implode from within, as the Soviet Union did. But it’s harder for economic competition to produce tangible political results when a country is as isolated as North Korea is. If we really wanted to destabilize the regime, the answer might be to open up trade and cultural exchange with the North to get the North Korean people exposed to the economic goodies they’re missing out on and make it harder for the regime to blame economic deprivation on western policy.

In the meantime, why all the loud rhetoric? Do Kim and Trump really need to be loudly and constantly reminded of one another’s deterrents? I doubt it. The real purpose is probably domestic–in Kim’s case, he wants to remind his people that the west is to blame for their situations and that his government is the only thing protecting them from invasion and instability. In Trump’s case, he likely wants to remind his core supporters that he is bold, tough, and aggressive and that he protects them from all threats, both real and imaginary. But does anyone seriously have anything to fear? Not really.