No mil­i­tary op­tion

The case for a ‘grand bar­gain’ with North Korea

Financial Times Middle East - - Front Page - Gideon Rach­man gideon.rach­man@ft.com

The two sides are like ac­cel­er­at­ing trains com­ing to­wards each other with nei­ther side will­ing to give way.” That was how Wang Yi, the Chi­nese for­eign min­is­ter, de­scribed the ten­sion be­tween the US and North Korea. The fact that thedrivers of the two trains are Kim Jon Gun and Don­ald Trump will not re­as­sure those of a ner­vous dis­po­si­tion.

Last weekend, the Amer­i­can train gave a toot on its whis­tle, as Rex Tiller­son an­nounced that the era of Amer­i­can “strate­gic pa­tience” with North Korea is over. The US sec­re­tary of state made a point of em­pha­sis­ing that Amer­ica is con­sid­er­ing all op­tions, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary strikes.

Mr Tiller­son’s state­ment re­flected a bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus in the US that North Korea’s nu­clear am­bi­tions must be stopped. The Kim Jong Un regime is widely be­lieved to be clos­ing in on de­vel­op­ing an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic missile (ICBM) that could threaten the west coast of the US. It is con­ven­tional wis­dom in Wash­ing­ton that no pres­i­dent could tol­er­ate such a sit­u­a­tion. The im­pli­ca­tion of Mr Tiller­son’s state­ment is that, if the US can­not stop North Korea through diplo­matic or eco­nomic pres­sure, it will have to take mil­i­tary ac­tion.

But the idea of bomb­ing the North Korean nu­clear pro­gramme is dan­ger­ous folly. For the past 20 years, the US has re­peat­edly con­sid­ered the idea and re­peat­edly dis­missed it — for good rea­son.

The North Korean nu­clear and missile pro­grammes are widely dis­persed, in­clud­ing un­der­ground and un­der­wa­ter. It is un­likely that the whole pro­gramme could be de­stroyed in a sin­gle wave of strikes, which would im­me­di­ately raise the prospect of nu­clear re­tal­i­a­tion by the North.

Even if the US was mirac­u­lously able to take out the whole nu­clear pro­gramme in one swoop, the North Kore­ans still have for­mi­da­ble con­ven­tional ar­tillery. They could launch dev­as­tat­ing bar­rages aimed at Seoul, the South Korean cap­i­tal, a city of 10m people 35 miles from the North Korean bor­der. Ja­pan would also be vul­ner­a­ble to missile strikes, as would US bases in the re­gion.

For that rea­son, the US would be un­likely to have the sup­port of its key Asian al­lies if it staged a pre-emp­tive strike against North Korea. Tokyo and Seoul know that a war on the Korean penin­sula could cost more than 1m lives. It could also draw in China, which is both a neigh­bour and a for­mal treaty ally of North Korea. It is worth re­mem­ber­ing that the last time Amer­i­can and Chi­nese troops fought each other was on the Korean penin­sula in the 1950s.

So the idea that Amer­ica “can­not tol­er­ate” a North Korean nu­clear ICBM needs to be chal­lenged. Ever since the 1960s, the US has lived with the knowl­edge that Rus­sia has nu­clear mis­siles that could an­ni­hi­late much of the coun­try. To­day, Amer­ica and its al­lies have to live with the knowl­edge that Pak­istan, a coun­try that is the base for some of the most dan­ger­ous Is­lamist move­ments in the world, is churn­ing out nu­clear weapons.

Some ar­gue that the North Korean case is dif­fer­ent be­cause Kim Jong Un is “mad”. But claims that a for­eign leader is crazy are a sure sign of lazy think­ing — of the kind that led the west to dis­as­ter in Iraq and Libya. Mr Kim is evil, ruth­less and iso­lated. But there is a con­sis­tent thread that runs through his ac­tions, and that is an ab­so­lute de­ter­mi­na­tion to en­sure the sur­vival of his regime. It is this that ex­plains the mur­der of any pos­si­ble ri­vals, the re­lent­less drive to se­cure a nu­clear de­ter­rent and the will­ing­ness to im­pose eco­nomic pri­va­tion on his people. Given that sur­vival is the North Korean leader’s ab­so­lute pri­or­ity, there must be con­sid­er­able doubt that even in­ten­si­fied eco­nomic sanc­tions can per­suade him to aban­don his nu­clear pro­gramme. In fact, the threat of regime col­lapse might make North Korea even moredan­ger­ous.

None of that sug­gests that the US should fa­tal­is­ti­cally ac­cept that North Korea will ac­quire a nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity that can threaten Cal­i­for­nia. But the best ways of deal­ing with that threat are diplo­matic and eco­nomic, not mil­i­tary.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion thinks that China holds the key to North Korea. It is cer­tainly true that the regime in Py­ongyang is eco­nom­i­cally de­pen­dent on its neigh­bour to the north. The Chi­nese have also shown some re­cent will­ing­ness to tighten eco­nomic sanc­tions on North Korea by stop­ping im­ports of coal.

It might make sense to ap­ply eco- nomic pres­sure on North Korea in the short term. But the bet­ter route, in the long run, would be to search for a deal that freezes the coun­try’s nu­clear pro- gramme, in re­turn for eco­nomic as­sist- ance and a guar­an­tee that the US will not seek to over throw the regime. This is what John Delury, a lead­ing aca­demic spe­cial­ist on North Korea, has termed a “grand­bar­gain”.

Any diplo­matic feel­ers to the North Korean regime would have to be made in se­cret, ini­tially, and might in­volve en­list­ing Chi­nese sup­port. Ef­forts at strik­ing a “grand bar­gain” with the Kim regime might still fail. But if diplo­macy fails, the right al­ter­na­tive is not to launch a war. Amer­ica would just have to live with the threat of North Korean nu­clear weapons, as it has lived with sim­i­lar threats in the past. Other­wise, we may in­deed be head­ing for a deadly train crash.

The threat of regime col­lapse might make the coun­try even more dan­ger­ous

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