While Americans were celebrating Independence Day, North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, with a potential range that some experts estimate could reach the United States. As The Wall Street Journal reports in an editorial headlined “The North Korean Missile Crisis“:
Tuesday’s missile, dubbed the Hwasong-14, has an estimated range of 6,700 kilometers, which puts Alaska within range. America’s lower 48 states may still be out of reach, but the test shows the North has overcome most of the obstacles to a long-range missile.
Enough, already. There is no safe way to end the North Korean menace, but the threats from Kim Jong Un’s regime are amplifying at a clip that suggests it is even more dangerous to allow the Kim regime to carry on. While the world has watched, for years — and while the United Nations Security Council has passed one sanctions resolution after another — North Korea has not only been carrying out ballistic missile and nuclear tests, but enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium to amass ever more bomb fuel. As the Journal editorial also notes, North Korea by now “has an estimated 20 nuclear warheads as well as chemical and biological weapons.”
The threat is not solely that North Korea — well versed in shakedown rackets — could target the U.S. with nuclear-tipped ICBMs, or that North Korea can add nuclear weapons to the massive arsenal with which it has long threatened Seoul.
A further danger is that North Korea could proliferate its advancing nuclear missile technology, or even the weapons themselves, to other rogue states, such as Iran — with which Pyongyang has trafficked and cooperated for decades in missile development, and according to some press accounts (please see my discussion of reporting by Douglas Frantz), in nuclear weapons development as well.
The Pyongyang regime was part of Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network, supplied taboo nuclear-related materials to Qaddafi’s Libya, and has a record of proliferating nuclear technology (the clandestine Al-Kibar reactor built with North Korean help in Syria destroyed by a 2007 Israeli air strike). It is alarmingly plausible that when Pyongyang brags up its missile and nuclear tests, the global headlines double as North Korean advertising to actors around the globe who might be interested in North Korea’s illicit wares.
A further danger, as long as the Kim regime survives, is that North Korea is setting an example all too likely to encourage other countries to pursue nuclear weapons — whether in self-defense (Japan comes right to mind) or for their own predatory purposes (for instance, Iran). Beyond that, North Korea has been setting an increasingly dangerous example worldwide, for years, of just how far a predatory regime can push the envelope of any civilized world order — and get away with it. If impoverished and bizarre North Korea, with its military and nuclear games of chicken, can force the U.S. to repeatedly blink, what ambitions might that encourage in Moscow and Beijing?
After this July 4th North Korean ICBM display, the temptation for the Trump administration will be to fall back on the standard menu of U.S. responses. These have been employed variously by three presidents, stretching back well over 20 years, to the days when the prospect of North Korea producing even a single nuclear bomb, with no functional vehicle for delivery, was considered a crisis.
These stock responses boil down to negotiations and a deal (Clinton); sanctions, more sanctions, and yet more sanctions, leading to negotiations and a deal (Bush); and sanctions, and yet more sanctions, plus a White House shrug, packaged under the fancy but meaningless label of “strategic patience” (Obama).
None of these responses (or in Obama’s case, pseudo-responses) have stopped North Korea’s nuclear missile program, nor have they made a dent in the Kim dynasty’s monstrous totalitarian grip on North Korea. Instead, what these policies — or in Obama’s case, non-policies — have achieved is to allow each of three previous American presidents, in turn, to delay the day of a high-noon showdown with North Korea, passing along the growing problem to his successor. (If you google “kick the can down the road” and “North Korea,” you’ll pull up well over one million hits).
With each kick of the can, the dangers posed by North Korea have grown worse. Deals with North Korea’s Kim regime don’t work. North Korea cheats and carries on. The Kim regime’s totalitarian control over North Korea means that verification and enforcement become impossible, while American diplomats and politicians — who become invested in such deals — are effectively left, at least for a while, running cover for Pyongyang while they try to smooth over their own failures.
Obama’s “strategic patience” was a disaster, for which he owed Trump, and the American public, not just the warning he gave about North Korea as he left office, but a profound apology for dumping on his successor a threat grown dramatically worse during his eight years in the White House. On Obama’s watch, North Korea racked up a record number of ballistic missile tests, plus four of its five nuclear tests to date — and has for some time been visibly prepared to carry out a sixth.
Trump did not create this horror. But he did inherit a scene in which his predecessors have run out the clock.
What to do? America has the firepower to obliterate Kim’s regime, but has so far declined to use it, not least because Kim holds Seoul hostage to North Korea’s guns. Defense Secretary James Mattis has warned that a hot war with North Korea could be “catastrophic.”
Nor is China likely to bail out the U.S. and its democratic allies. Revealed preference, over decades, says that while China might be happy to cash in on hosting yet more useless negotiations, China doesn’t really mind North Korea making nuclear missiles to bedevil the U.S. and its allies, and China — which has been pursuing its own confrontations with the U.S. in the South China Sea — won’t help solve this.
By the same token, yet more sanctions might count as action in Washington and at the UN in New York. But what’s the endgame? In response to North Korea’s ICBM launch, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has put out a press statement calling for “global action” and saying the U.S. will go to the UN Security Council seeking “stronger measures to hold the DPRK accountable.” If the aim is to alter the character of the Pyongyang regime, such that Kim genuinely gives up his nuclear weapons program, it won’t work. The best Washington can hope for is that North Korea will return to the bargaining table, prepared to profit from, and cheat on, another nuclear deal.
The only real answer is an end to the Kim regime. Preferably by way of implosion — a coup, or collapse. That should entail the added benefit of delivering North Korea’s 25 million people from the most monstrous government on the planet. It would also send other tyrants of the 21st century, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his terrorist-sponsoring gang, the salutary message that acquiring nuclear weapons does not amount to a ticket to regime survival.
How to get there is a very tough question, made much tougher by all that can-kicking of previous administrations.
But here’s where I’d advise the Trump administration to start: Don’t aim to remold the character of a totalitarian regime. Don’t try to entice, pressure or manage Pyongyang in hope of better behavior. That will fail, at terrible cost.
Start instead with a basic mission: Get rid of the Kim regime. Start with that as the goal, and from there go through that fabled Washington toolbox — diplomatic, military, clandestine, overt, sanctions, cyber, you-name-it — seeking ways to minimize the enormous risks of bringing down the Kim regime, and coping with the wreck. North Korea’s tyranny, which needs to manufacture dire threats and enemies to justify its cruelties to its own people, has been claiming for years that the U.S. wants to take it down. Call that bluff.