We have cards to play in North Korea

The Korea cri­sis is real and grow­ing. But we are not help­less. We have choices.


The cri­sis with North Korea may ap­pear trumped up. It’s not. Given that Py­ongyang has had nu­clear weapons and bal­lis­tic mis­siles for more than a decade, why the panic now? Be­cause North Korea is headed for a nu­clear break­out. The regime has openly de­clared that it is racing to de­velop an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile that can reach the United States — and thus de­stroy an Amer­i­can city at a Kim Jong Un push of a but­ton.

The North Kore­ans are not bluff­ing. They’ve made sig­nif­i­cant progress with solid-fuel rock­ets, which are more quickly de­ploy­able and thus more eas­ily hid­den and less sub­ject to de­tec­tion and pre­emp­tion.

At the same time, Py­ongyang has been steadily adding to its sup­ply of nu­clear weapons. Today it has an es­ti­mated 10 to 16. By 2020, it could very well have a hun­dred. (For con­text: The Bri­tish are thought to have about 200.)

Hence the cri­sis. We sim­ply can­not con­cede to Kim Jong Un the ca­pac­ity to an­ni­hi­late Amer­i­can cities.

Some will ar­gue for de­ter­rence. If it held off the Rus­sians and the Chi­nese for all th­ese years, why not the North Kore­ans? First, be­cause de­ter­rence, even with a ra­tio­nal ad­ver­sary like the old Soviet Union, is never a sure thing. We came pretty close to nu­clear war in Oc­to­ber 1962.

And sec­ond, be­cause North Korea’s regime is bizarre in the ex­treme, a her­mit king­dom run by a weird, ut­terly ruth­less and highly er­ratic god-king. You can’t count on Caligula. The regime is sav­age and cult­like; its peo­ple, ro­botic. Karen El­liott House once noted that while Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Iraq was a prison, North Korea was an ant colony.

Ant colonies do not have good checks and bal­ances.

If not de­ter­rence, then preven­tion. But how? The best hope is for China to ex­er­cise its in­flu­ence and in­duce North Korea to give up its pro­grams.

For years, the Chi­nese made ges­tures, but never did any­thing re­motely de­ci­sive. They have their rea­sons. It’s not just that they fear a mas­sive in­flux of refugees if the Kim regime dis­in­te­grates. It’s also that Py­ongyang is a per­pet­ual thorn in the side of the Amer­i­cans, whereas regime col­lapse brings South Korea (and thus Amer­ica) right up to the Yalu River.

So why would the Chi­nese do our bid­ding now? For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons.

They don’t mind ten­sion but they don’t want war. And the risk of war is ris­ing. They know that the ICBM threat is to­tally un­ac­cept­able to the Amer­i­cans. And that the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears par­tic­u­larly com­mit­ted to en­forc­ing this un­de­clared red line.

Chi­nese in­ter­ests are be­ing sig­nif­i­cantly dam­aged by the erec­tion of re­gional mis­sile de­fenses to coun­ter­act North Korea’s nukes. South Korea is racing to in­stall a Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fense (THAAD) anti-mis­sile sys­tem. Ja­pan may fol­low. THAAD’s mis­sion is to track and shoot down in­com­ing rock­ets from North Korea but, like any mis­sile shield, it nec­es­sar­ily re­duces the power and pen­e­tra­tion of the Chi­nese nu­clear arse­nal.

For China to do noth­ing risks the re­turn of the Amer­i­can tac­ti­cal nukes in South Korea, with­drawn in 1991.

If the cri­sis deep­ens, the pos­si­bil­ity arises of South Korea and, more im­por­tantly, Ja­pan go­ing nu­clear them­selves. The lat­ter is the ul­ti­mate Chi­nese night­mare.

Th­ese are ma­jor cards Amer­ica can play. Our ob­jec­tive should be clear. At a min­i­mum, a test­ing freeze. At the max­i­mum, regime change.

Be­cause Beijing has such a strong in­ter­est in the cur­rent regime, we could sweeten the lat­ter of­fer by ab­jur­ing Korean re­uni­fi­ca­tion. This would not be Ger­many, where the com­mu­nist state was ab­sorbed into the West. We would ac­cept an in­de­pen­dent, but Fin­lan­dized, North Korea.

Dur­ing the Cold War, Fin­land was, by agree­ment, in­de­pen­dent but al­ways proRus­sian in for­eign pol­icy. Here we would guar­an­tee that a new North Korea would be in­de­pen­dent but al­ways ori­ented to­ward China. For ex­am­ple, the new regime would for­swear ever join­ing any hos­tile al­liance.

There are deals to be made. They may have to be un­der­pinned by demon­stra­tions of Amer­i­can re­solve. A pre­emp­tive at­tack on North Korea’s nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties and mis­sile sites would be too dan­ger­ous, as it would al­most surely pre­cip­i­tate an in­va­sion of South Korea with un­told mil­lions of ca­su­al­ties. We might, how­ever, try to shoot down a North Korean mis­sile in mid-flight to demon­strate both our ca­pac­ity to de­fend our­selves and the fu­til­ity of a North Korean mis­sile force that can be neu­tral­ized tech­no­log­i­cally.

The Korea cri­sis is real and grow­ing. But we are not help­less. We have choices. We have as­sets. It’s time to de­ploy them.

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