Persuading a dangerous country to abandon its ambition for nuclear weapons is akin to a two-horse race. In one lane is the adversary (say, North Korea) galloping ahead as quickly as possible toward ever greater levels of destructive capacity. In the other is the rest of the world (or whatever coalition of responsible nations can be cobbled together), using carrots and sticks to compel the adversary to slow, stop and ultimately reverse its course.
The finish line (you could call it a red line) varies from case to case. On Iran, the President Barack Obama’s administration vowed to deny the regime even one nuclear weapon — and used years of relentless pressure, the threat of military action, and eventually a timely diplomatic opening to ensure that outcome for the foreseeable future.
North Korea has been a different story entirely. Pyongyang has sprinted through a series of ever-more troubling finish lines for decades, starting before it possessed nuclear weapon or a sophisticated missile program. Today it has both.
Now Kim Jong Un has crossed the most menacing threshold yet by successfully testing what experts believe was an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching U.S. territory. This leaves the planet’s most unpredictable nation on the cusp of being able to hit the U.S. homeland with the the most powerful weapons known to man. Once North Korea demonstrates it can miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on the missile, its quest will be complete.
In other words, decades of U.S. policy toward North Korea — which has amounted to far less pressure than was placed on Iran, despite a far greater threat — have now, definitively, failed.
Predictably, the news left Washington abuzz with talk of options, the only apparent consensus being that none of them is likely to work. Most center on China, which is responsible for as much as 90 percent of North Korea’s economic activity. But because Beijing worries more about the collapse of its ally than about missiles that aren’t pointed in its direction, it has declined to use enough leverage. One proposal that may be worth a shot would have Beijing, rather than the United States, pay off North Korea for restraining its program, and subject China to U.S. sanctions if it doesn’t deliver.
The problem with such plans is that they may be years too late. North Korea is on the brink of achieving its ultimate goals, leaving the U.S. with one major policy question that leads to two basic and unpalatable options. The policy question, which is harder than it sounds, is whether we can live with a North Korea that can strike our territory with a nuclear tipped missile.
The easy answer — which virtually every prior administration has given, and which President Donald Trump has tweeted — is no. The policy option that flows from that answer is to launch a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea, perhaps conducted, according to one recent description, in two phases: first take out as much nuclear infrastructure as possible, coupled with a clear message that any significant retaliation — against U.S. forces in the region, against South Korea, against Japan, against U.S. territory — will mean the end of the Kim regime.
The problem with this option is that, with limited intelligence, the U.S. cannot be sure it will eliminate all of North Korea’s weapons and long-range missiles. And rather than be restrained, Pyongyang, faced with an existential threat, will almost certainly unleash its arsenal of artillery, missiles and chemical and biological weapons sitting just 35 miles from Seoul, a city of more than 10 million, leading to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of deaths, including many Americans.
This reality leads many analysts, grudgingly but rationally, to believe that yes, given the alternative, Americans should prefer to live with a nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.
But this road is also not as simple as it sounds. It is, in effect, a high-stakes bet on the fundamental rationality of a leader who often behaves as if he is anything but. This is, after all, a man who boasts of turning the U.S. into a “sea of fire,” runs the planet’s most brutal gulag, and routinely assassinates members of his own family. But since the best explanation for why Kim wants nuclear weapons in the first place is to ensure the survival of his regime, it stands to reason that he will not take an action that he knows will end it, as well as his life. The problem is that even a small chance that this view is wrong is incredibly unsettling.
The Trump administration will likely face this horrible choice sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the most prudent course is to prepare for failure, while taking a last, genuine shot at avoiding disaster by accelerating both carrots and sticks.
Preparing for failure means strengthening our deterrent, and communicating in a format more serious than a tweet, that if Pyongyang moves toward actually using a nuclear weapon, we will end the regime. It means improving our ability to target North Korea’s nuclear sites, including elusive targets like mobile launchers. It means reassuring our allies, Japan and South Korea, in part to avoid any inclination to pursue nuclear weapons of their own. And it means bolstering our missile defenses — a technological challenge experts likened to “hitting a bullet with a bullet” — which remain imperfect despite billions of dollars invested.
It also means a significant escalation of sanctions pressure, including against Chinese entities that do business with the North. These so-called “secondary sanctions,” which the U.S. effectively employed on Iran, will cause real friction with China, and could lead to blowback on other issues. But at this point, there should be no higher priority for this relationship.
Of course, pressure alone will not be enough. China is more likely to play ball, and North Korea more likely to consider a new path, if there is a diplomatic off-ramp from the current road to confrontation. Therefore, before resorting to war, or resigning ourselves to live indefinitely under nuclear threat, the U.S. should offer direct negotiations with Pyongyang, even as the pressure increases, and consider uncomfortable incentives like a guarantee against regime change by force, massive economic assistance, and temporarily reducing military exercises in the region, in exchange for North Korea freezing and eventually rolling back its program. It may also mean contemplating an outcome short of full denuclearization by the North, which is longstanding U.S. policy. Critics of such reversible concessions are correct that they have avoided rewarding bad behavior– but meanwhile the threat we face, and available options, have only grown worse.
Skepticism about diplomacy with a country that has cheated on past agreements is necessary. But treating diplomacy like an undeserved reward, rather than a means to an end, will certainly not address the problem.
The immediate question is whether the Trump administration, with all of its volatility, personnel shortages and bandwidth challenges, can execute a strategy this sensitive and complicated. To have a chance of getting it right, the president should start by finding seasoned hands to fill key vacancies that would be responsible for this effort — ambassador to South Korea, assistant secretaries of state for arms control, nonproliferation and East Asia.
The president should also reconsider his rhetoric. His comments on North Korea thus far have been limited to cryptic jabs at China, and warnings that lack credibility (let alone specificity). The president should level with the American people about the terrible choices we face. Calibrating such a message to inform and not terrify people would be difficult even for a far more disciplined administration.
But in a democracy, at the darkest times, a leader should prepare the public for what may be to come, rather than provide a false sense of security and hollow threats. Unlike many of the self-inflicted crises generated since January, this one Trump can genuinely assert is not his fault. But he will still own whatever consequences flow from it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Tobin Harshaw at email@example.com