The bomb slinging by both President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not yet given way to the real thing. Despite Trump’s “fiery” statements, he is not wrong in the Hermit Kingdom. The North Korean problem has plagued administration after administration without any favorable results.
Rebukes and rebuffed invitations have to lead us to this catastrophic certainty: North Korea will almost certainly achieve their nuclear ambitions. With this in mind, our leaders should push for new approaches to this daunting prospect. A combined approach of diplomacy and containment would provide the much-needed security support to our allies while giving North Korea an on-ramp to rejoin the global community.
How should the United States face this looming challenge? First, contrary to conventional wisdom, North Korea’s nuclear inevitability could prove to be an international triumph. It’s possible that, over time and with nukes in hand, the North would lower their drawbridge to the world. The North’s nuclear arsenal will likely protect it from external threats, which might allow the regime to focus on the domestic issues of its citizens.
There’s no significant evidence that the North would be any more likely to use nuclear weapons than their nuclear-powered counterparts. As Thomas Friedman writes, “North Korea’s ruling Kim family is homicidal, but it has not survived for three generations by being suicidal. And firing a nuclear missile at us would be suicide.”
Incidents aside, countries with nuclear arms — China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States, India, Pakistan, and Israel — have conducted themselves in a manner befitting such destructive power.
More importantly, few options remain for those who oppose this foregone conclusion. War would leave hundreds of thousands dead without removing the North’s nuclear crosshairs from the continental United States and victory would be far from certain.
Less apocalyptic options aren’t very appealing either. Sanctions are mere half measures for a regime so close to the nuclear-promised land and China is unlikely to apply the pressure needed to shift North Korea’s calculus. China would rather have an unpredictable nuclear capable neighbor than a US ally on its border. China continues to walk the tightrope between their interests in North Korea and their relations with the world.
Of late, China has relaxed its support of North Korea in certain areas. They, along with Russia, supported UN sanctions against the regime. Potentially more important are reports that the Chinese have decided they would not defend the North if they provoked an international conflict.
Those less apocalyptic options require a more complex approach. If a nuclear powered North is inevitable, then the country must come to terms with it. Rather than worry about when the North Korea will get “the bomb” we should be looking for diplomatic solutions to bring this menace into the global community.
Overtures in the past have done little to quell the North’s aggressive rhetoric and nuclear tenacity. As with the Soviets, we won’t be able to sit back and take North Korea at their word. Diplomat George Kennan once said of the Soviets that, “the accords were fig leaves of democratic procedure to hide the nakedness of Stalinist dictatorship.” Similar logic often applies to diplomatic accords with North Korea.
Diplomatic delay tactics and broken promises often accompany North Korean agreements. Protected by China, the North has acted like a child raised without rules. Only time will tell if the Hermit Kingdom’s baby blanket of nuclear arms will lead them on a path toward global reconciliation.
North Korea’s economy has grown significantly since the king took his throne. This growth could signal Kim’s broader ambitions and that shift toward reconciliation once he has secured his spot atop the throne. He’s investing heavily in infrastructure not known for going boom. Beyond bombs and bullets, Kim has invested in orphanages, factories, amusement parks and other similar ventures since taking power in 2011.
These investments, if continued, should provide a measure of stability and decrease any future domestic turmoil.
In a sign of supreme confidence in both his nuclear arsenal and his domestic situation, Kim has only increased his rhetoric over the last several months. Kim’s peace through strength approach has won him the short game. Since nuclear-armed nations are rarely attacked, it seems he has protected his regime from outside actors for the time being.
The long game, however, may prove more challenging. Jong-un will need to continue domestic investments, but the more he provides the more will be expected. Given the state of the North Korean economy, providing sustained benefits to the North Korean people will be challenging. Most improvements to date have been superficial measures like theme parks and ski resorts. If Kim wants to stave off a Venezuelan-style disaster he will need to generate substantial economic growth over time. In refocusing efforts inward and away from bombastic military adventurism Kim could make other world powers more willing to do business with his regime. That’s especially true of nations unaligned with western interests. Increased economic aid, trade, and investments should spurn the growth required to ensure stability.
The North has the weapons, that game is over and we’ve lost. Now we must find ways to contain and converse with the Hermit Kingdom to ensure regional stability and our own security. Given Kim’s actions, that may not prove as impossible as some would believe. If we can live with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the threat of armed terrorists seizing their arsenal, North Korea should be a walk in a Pyongyang park.