So the weekend ended without the outbreak of Korean War II. That really shouldn’t be a cause for much surprise, but it was easy to be fooled by the overheated rhetoric emanating from both sides in the days prior.
As NBC News reported, based on who knows what sources, “The U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test.” China seemed to respond to such reports by warning that if the U.S. and North Korea “let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this.”
In the end, there was no sixth nuclear test. North Korea instead displayed missiles, including a purported ICBM, in a military parade through Pyongyang. When the North tried to test-fire a missile, whether because of American sabotage or North Korean incompetence, the rocket failed seconds after liftoff. Crisis averted.
The Trump administration thus did not have to show whether it is actually willing to intercept a North Korean missile test or even to bomb North Korea in retaliation for a nuclear test. The fact that there is some ambiguity and uncertainty about this question is, on the whole, a positive development, because it puts real pressure on China to try to curtail its clients in Pyongyang. But while the administration could not and should not rule out military action, it should realize that this would be, as John F. Kennedy said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “one hell of a gamble.” It would also be one that would not be justified absent clear intelligence that North Korea is actually about to attack either one of its neighbors or us.
Echoing earlier words from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, on his weekend visit to South Korea, warned the North that “the era of strategic patience is over,” and that “if China is unable to deal with North Korea, the United States and our allies will.” That kind of tough talk sounds good, but as the administration is no doubt realizing, the U.S. has only limited leverage over North Korea.
By all means, the U.S. should step up sanctions, including secondary sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with the criminal regime in Pyongyang. But there is no overwhelming imperative to go beyond that and risk war, even if North Korea finally fields an ICBM with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching Washington.
We should not panic, any more than we panicked when Russia and China acquired similar capabilities many decades ago. In those cases, we relied on deterrence to prevent an attack, while, in the case of the Soviet Union, implementing a containment doctrine premised on the assumption that the dysfunctional Soviet state would eventually collapse. That strategy was amply vindicated by the peaceful end of the Cold War and could usefully be followed in the case of North Korea today.
Kim Jong-un is dangerous, but he is not suicidal. He is not even all that ambitious—unlike Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, or the Iranian mullahs, he does not aim to dominate his neighbors. All he wants to do is to survive. The reason why North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons is that the Kim family looks upon them as the ultimate life preserver; give them up, and they fear they will go the way of Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. But as the experience of the Soviet Union showed, even having the ultimate weapon will not stave off regime collapse.
North Korea is one the poorest and most isolated countries on earth, and it is governed according to a weird “Juche” philosophy that is increasingly being undermined by the penetration of news from the outside world. The Kim dynasty has defied previous expectations of its collapse after the deaths of Kim Il-sung (1994) and Kim Jong-il (2011). Kim Jong-un, a third-generation tyrant, has done an impressive job of consolidating power by purging or killing his rivals. But a regime this illegitimate and impoverished cannot last forever. Sooner or later—whether in seven months or seventy years—it will collapse, and the Korean peninsula will be unified under a democratic, pro-Western government based in Seoul.
From the U.S. perspective, our policy should be to hasten the regime’s demise by applying all possible sanctions, but not to risk an outright military confrontation with a state that possesses nuclear weapons and artillery zeroed in on Seoul. That seems to be the policy that H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, was hinting at when he said on Sunday that the U.S. should “take action, short of armed conflict, so we can avoid the worst” in dealing with “this unpredictable regime.” If so, then the Trump administration is taking a responsible approach—ratcheting up the pressure but stopping short of war. Let’s hope that this is, in fact, the policy going forward.