“I woke up at four this morning because of jet lag,” I began. “I looked at the news on my phone and saw that North Korea launched another missile that could carry a nuclear weapon all the way to the United States. The missile landed in the Sea of Japan. At first I tried to avoid thinking about what it means and what I could do about it. Then I realized I was not in Washington, but in Hiroshima. This made the situation much more disturbing. My question is: You live near North Korea and your country is the only one that’s been bombed with nuclear weapons. So how do you think about what North Korea is doing?”
“We think about whether we should get the iPhone X.” The students laughed awkwardly, as did I.
That night, flying to Beijing, I wondered about the different ways we all cope with profoundly scary prospects beyond our control. Cool gadgets and video games are nice diversions to have. Hoping that someone will sort it all out is another natural escape. Avoiding the reality that the safest solution sometimes requires accommodating an adversary is another.
But leaders have obligations not to avoid reality. They actually control whether there will be nuclear war or peace with North Korea. Kim Jong Un is one such leader, along with his top military officers. Donald Trump is another, along with the chain of command under him. Xi Jinping is also relevant, though the Chinese leader will neither start nor join a war over North Korea, nor, despite U.S. hopes, make or break a diplomatic deal to create a modus vivendi between North Korea and the rest of the world.
We have little evidence to judge whether Kim has a desire and a strategy to stabilize the decades-old confrontation between his country and the United States, South Korea and Japan. We do have some evidence that President Trump is avoiding the realities of the situation and the hard-to-swallow fact that there is no glorious way out of it. After the latest missile test, he tweeted: “This situation will be handled.” This sounds like phone-playing avoidance more than it does a leader with a viable strategy.
There are three options, none of them winners. Military strikes and war are one. Without giving away secrets, civilians and military officers in the enormous U.S. defense establishment tell friends that unprecedented intensive planning is underway for military operations against North Korea. This noise could be meant to scare Kim Jong Un into backing down; it’s also an inevitable consequence of the size and advanced preparation required for a war with North Korea.
Unfortunately, there is no “surgical” way to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons without invading and occupying the country. Key elements of the nuclear weapon program, and perhaps the biological weapon program too, are deeply underground. The U.S. would not know whether it destroyed all the material and people that matter unless American forces were on the ground to search. United States and South Korean forces ultimately could destroy the North Korean regime and military. But, in the process South Korea could suffer major casualties and destruction, as would North Korea, and that’s assuming no nuclear weapons are used. If the United States undertook such a military campaign before North Korea had attacked, the rest of the world would turn against Washington as never before.
The U.S. could pursue vigorously enforced comprehensive sanctions to somehow force disarmament or regime change. The Trump administration is trying this now. But there is little evidence that China and other key players will enforce total sanctions, or that such sanctions would force Kim to give up his nuclear weapons, or the North Korean military to give up Kim. Kim feels that his regime can’t survive without nuclear weapons. Whatever costs sanctions pose to him are not as dangerous as giving up nuclear weapons would be. From his perspective, what’s to stop Washington from re-imposing sanctions the minute he disarmed? Better to keep the nukes.
China and others know this. They believe that sanctions will increase the suffering of the North Korean people without satisfying American demands. Moreover, as with Iraq in 2003, the United States has neither the will nor the capability to manage a transformation to a more humane and functional government in North Korea, if somehow Kim were toppled. China and Russia joined tough sanctions on Iran because American leaders demonstrated they would take a realistic deal in which Iran would keep its uranium enrichment capability but limit it under strict verification protocols.
Similar negotiations are the third option with North Korea, paired with sanctions. President Trump, in his November 7 speech to the South Korean National Assembly, hinted at a diplomatic “path to a much better future.” But he seemed to precondition it on Kim agreeing to stop “development of ballistic missiles” and to accept “complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.”
All evidence and logic suggest that this is totally unrealistic. The North Korean regime will reject any outcome that does not allow it to retain a basic nuclear deterrent. Without the capacity to deter the United States, North Korean leaders have no leverage to prevent future efforts to sanction, subvert or overthrow them. Trump’s starting point, then, is not even an acceptable end point for the North Koreans. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment Tuesday that the U.S. “is ready” to meet with North Korean counterparts “without precondition” suggests that he recognizes this. But when President Trump treats Tillerson like a loser, why would Pyongyang take the secretary seriously?
There is no winning to be had here. Short of a potentially catastrophic war, the only feasible option is to negotiate limits on the size and operation of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and establish a modus vivendi in which each side deters the other from aggression. This worked with murderous communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China—Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin were responsible for deaths of tens of millions of their citizens—and there is no evidence it would be less effective with North Korea.
The odds of President Trump achieving the glory he might desire through a quick and relatively clean military strike are lower than the odds of a debacle that would be much deadlier than the Iraq War that he decried during the campaign. A negotiation that bought an end to more nuclear and missile testing, and some measure of stability on the Korean Peninsula, in return for acknowledging the reality that North Korea will for a time retain nuclear weapons, would not bring glory to the president. But it would shock and awe other leaders around the world who do not believe this president actually has the temperament to make the kind of deal that nuclear statesmanship requires. If Secretary Tillerson is willing to try, give him a realistic objective and clear backing. Take credit if he delivers. Fire him if he doesn’t.
This article was originally published in Politico