Fo­cus on de­ter­rence; it’s too late to stop N Korea



US Am­bas­sador Nikki Ha­ley’s re­marks this week at the United Na­tions after North Korea’s lat­est mis­sile test sounded like what a su­per­power should say. If war comes, “the North Korean regime will be ut­terly de­stroyed”. If China doesn’t cut off oil to the Her­mit King­dom, “we can take the oil sit­u­a­tion into our own hands”.

It would have been a great speech in 1997. That was when sig­na­to­ries to the nu­clear non-pro­lif­er­a­tion treaty were loath to vi­o­late it. It was be­fore North Korea had tested its first nu­clear de­vice. It was be­fore the US cut a deal with Iran to over­look its past nu­clear trans­gres­sions in ex­change for a tem­po­rary freeze on its nu­clear pro­gramme and a free pass to test mis­siles.

In 2017, though, Ha­ley’s warn­ings and the cruder ones from her boss, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, are dis­con­nected from re­al­ity. And here it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber why the pres­i­dent and his en­voys are mak­ing threats in the first place. All of this is in the ser­vice of a dis­cred­ited pol­icy to not al­low North Korea to ob­tain a nu­clear weapon. The idea has been to threaten, cod­dle and tempt Kim Jong-un to start ne­go­ti­a­tions that would lead to him aban­don­ing them.

Only a mat­ter of time

Well, this is never go­ing to hap­pen. Amer­ica and its al­lies have been try­ing this for about a quar­ter of a cen­tury and the North Kore­ans burn us every time. Now North Korea only needs to per­fect a nu­clear war­head that can sur­vive re-en­try into the at­mos­phere to have a cred­i­ble nu­clear threat against the US.

As Michael Auslin, a fel­low in con­tem­po­rary Asia at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion, told me last week: “That’s only a mat­ter of time. It’s a tech­ni­cal is­sue at this point. They are go­ing to get it.”

So it’s time for a new ap­proach: Give up. Amer­ica should never “ac­cept” North Korea as a nu­clear weapon state. But it can end the point­less cy­cles of pres­sure and ne­go­ti­a­tion. The North Kore­ans have used all that pos­tur­ing to buy time to per­fect their nukes, and the Chi­nese have art­fully used that dance to dis­tract us from coun­ter­ing China’s own pre­da­tions.

And yes, I know “give up” sounds dan­ger­ously un-Amer­i­can. Let’s put it an­other way: Fo­cus on a bat­tle we have not yet lost.

In­stead of wast­ing the re­sources of an al­ready de­pleted State De­part­ment on pre­par­ing for more talks with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of an Asian prison state, Amer­ica’s diplo­mats and strate­gic plan­ners can fo­cus on im­prov­ing our de­ter­rence against North Korea. Amer­i­can diplo­macy and mil­i­tary band­width can be de­voted to coun­ter­ing China’s mil­i­tari­sa­tion of the South China Sea and its broader eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal strat­egy to turn our Pa­cific and east Asian al­lies into vas­sals of Bei­jing.

In the fu­ture, Trump and his diplo­mats won’t have to spend their meet­ings with Chi­nese coun­ter­parts plead­ing with them to get their client state to be­have. That’s China’s prob­lem now.

Amer­ica is de­vel­op­ing even bet­ter technology to shoot North Korean mis­siles out of the sky be­fore they land.

Then there’s cred­i­bil­ity. It’s true that Amer­ica would have taken a hit with a “give up” strat­egy a few years ago. But to­day North Korea is al­most there.

De­spite Trump’s oc­ca­sional tweeted threats, it’s hard to be­lieve he will or­der a pre-emp­tive strike. Even if he did, it would prob­a­bly not be all that ef­fec­tive. The fact that North Korea tested its mis­sile this week on a mo­bile launcher makes it that much more dif­fi­cult to take out these sites. This says noth­ing of the risk that the North would re­tal­i­ate with con­ven­tional ar­tillery shells by de­stroy­ing the cap­i­tal of South Korea, Seoul.

Be­sides, nu­clear weapons are ex­pen­sive. Coun­tries al­ready in­te­grated into the global sys­tem face penal­ties and pres­sure that out­laws like North Korea really don’t. “By ac­knowl­edg­ing the re­al­ity of North Korea as a nu­clear power, it doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally mean Zim­babwe wants a nu­clear weapon,” Auslin told me. “Those who want nu­clear weapons are al­ready try­ing to get them.”

To give up on preven­tion is to fo­cus on treat­ment. We need more creative op­tions to deal with the North Korean men­ace. No longer will Amer­i­can diplo­mats have to worry about how Py­onyang’s tyrant will re­act to se­nior of­fi­cials speak­ing the truth about his de­based regime.

Kim Jong-un wants nukes so his regime can sur­vive. Nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions meant as­sur­ing him that Amer­ica has no in­ter­est in see­ing his peo­ple live in dig­nity and free­dom. Amer­ica will not have this prob­lem any­more.

Think of the op­por­tu­ni­ties. The pres­i­dent could el­e­vate and call at­ten­tion to brave North Korean dis­si­dents. He could en­cour­age them to be­gin plan­ning for a tran­si­tion to Korean democ­racy. Imag­ine a White House con­fer­ence: “Plan­ning for a Korea With­out the Kim Regime”. Who knows? With a lit­tle luck maybe a con­stel­la­tion of dis­si­dents could form a gov­ern­ment in ex­ile.

Giv­ing up on stop­ping a North Korean nuke means get­ting Amer­ica on the right side of Korean his­tory.

Fi­nally there is the ben­e­fit of sta­bil­ity. Kim will no longer have the abil­ity to throw the re­gion and the world into cri­sis every time he tests a nu­clear de­vice or a mis­sile.

Amer­ica should still try to sab­o­tage his pro­gram through cy­ber viruses and more con­ven­tional means. But in the short term, Kim will lose his abil­ity to get the world to fo­cus on his threats when­ever he wishes.

It’s some­thing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion should think about. And maybe the next time Kim de­cides to pro­voke, the US re­sponse can be mea­sured and bor­ing.

The Pen­tagon should trot out some deputy as­sis­tant un­der sec­re­tary to say the US frowns upon the lat­est move, but that North Korea knows full well what will hap­pen if it ever at­tacks Amer­ica or her al­lies. Mean­while Trump could tweet some­thing about his up­com­ing White House con­fer­ence: “Imag­in­ing a World With­out North Korea”. It sure beats empty threats in the ser­vice of dead-end talks.

North Korean sol­diers watch a fire­works dis­play put on to cel­e­brate the North’s dec­la­ra­tion on Novem­ber 29 it had achieved full nu­clear state­hood, dur­ing a mass rally on Kim Il-sung Square in Py­ongyang on Fri­day. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un de­clared the coun­try had achieved a “his­toric cause” of be­com­ing a nu­clear state, its state me­dia said on Novem­ber 29, after the coun­try tested an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile ear­lier in the day.

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