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 pre-emption.
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 cult-like; 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 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, most 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.
During the Cold War, Finland was, by agreement, independent but always pro-Russian 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 pre-emptive 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.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.