After its nineteenth missile test of the year (so far), the last being a second shot over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, and its sixth nuclear weapon test detonation, North Korea is claiming to be near completion of its nuclear forces. The last nuclear test, the North Koreans claim, was of a hydrogen bomb which may be within their capability to manufacture.
America’s responses have, so far, ranged from harsh words and a new round of ineffective UN economic sanctions to a new nickname — “Rocket Man” — that President Trump hung on Kim Jong Un on Saturday while speaking with South Korean President Moon Jae-In. We were informed by the president, as usual, on Twitter.
Angry words aimed at Kim’s regime aren’t enough to assuage our allies’ fears. Twice this year, senior Japanese officials have sought and received assurances from people such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Japan is under the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” i.e., that we would defend Japan, if necessary with nuclear weapons, were it attacked by North Korea.
A delegation of South Korean politicians visited Washington last week to lobby for the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to their nation. They weren’t successful because President Moon (who wasn’t part of the delegation) is opposed to the idea.
As reported by Fox News on Saturday, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is quoted in state-run media saying that North Korea is going “full speed and straight” to the goal of “completing its nuclear force” and is “nearly” there. In the FNC report Kim goes on to say that his regime’s aim is to “establish the equilibrium of real force with the U.S.” so the U.S. would “dare not talk about the military option.”
It’s a bad idea to take dictators at their word, but it’s equally bad — and usually worse — to try to psychoanalyze them to figure out what they mean. Kim’s actions are vastly more important. In their context, his comments about establishing an “equilibrium of real force” so that we wouldn’t dare attempt the “military option” are somewhat revealing.
Kim is trying to establish a deterrent force sufficient in range and lethality to prevent us from doing several things. One, as his words indicate, is to kill him and however many of the members of his regime necessary to precipitate regime change. He also wants to continue to threaten the U.S., Japan, and South Korea with his increasingly capable nuclear arsenal. From his standpoint, Kim is succeeding far more than he may have expected to.
We, on the other hand, have succeeded — so far — in deterring him from attacking US territory, Japan, and South Korea. But our deterrent force hasn’t — and isn’t — preventing Kim from advancing the capabilities of his nuclear and missile forces to the point that he can now threaten about one-third of the continental U.S. and will soon bring our entire nation under threat.
Kim’s goal is to make that threat permanent and thus free him to pursue whatever wars he desires, perhaps to conquer South Korea or even Japan.
Simply put, his deterrent is working and ours isn’t. There is nothing — no economic sanctions, no other diplomatic maneuvers, and no action that China or Russia will take — to prevent Kim’s nuclear weapon and missile capabilities from continuing to grow. No negotiation with them — direct or indirect — can possibly benefit us.
Sending tactical nuclear weapons to an unwilling South Korea is no answer. Neither is the nuclear arming of Japan, a nation whose abhorrence of those weapons is historically understandable but may be wavering. Those moves would be nothing more than saber rattling in the context of the already partially failed deterrence strategy.
Four American presidents — Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump — have all vowed to prevent North Korea from achieving what it has already achieved.
President Trump will make his first address to the UN General Assembly this week. He is sure to call on the “international community” to stave off the threat of North Korea’s nuclear-armed missiles. In that, he will fail as his three predecessors did. The president will also use strong language to call on the Chinese to solve the North Korean problem. In that, too, he will fail.
North Korea like Iran, its partner in nuclear weapons and missile development, cannot be disarmed peacefully. Former presidential advisor Steve Bannon said that there is no military option to deal with North Korea so, in his words, “they got us.” So where do we go from here?
The Chinese don’t want a unified Korean Peninsula governed by a democratic regime friendly to the United States. The instability of the Kim regime suits them for the moment. But the South Koreans may be the wild card in the deck.
The South Koreans are reportedly training a special force that could assassinate Kim and cause regime change. President Moon is highly unlikely to order that strike because — whether or not it succeeds — Kim’s assassination could precipitate the war South Korea fears most. Some of Kim’s generals would survive the attack and as a result almost certainly ignite that war.
The only near-term solution would be, as I have written before, for the president to secretly convince the Chinese to topple the Kim regime and replace it with another that is more susceptible of Chinese control. That would obviate the Chinese fear of a united, American-friendly Korea.
There is no other rapid solution that would end the threat relatively peacefully. Kim will continue his wild threats to wipe out American cities. Through two decades of inaction, we have brought ourselves to the point that we will live under those threats for the foreseeable future.
Our only other course is, as I have also written, is to substantially and quickly improve our missile defenses, best done by putting anti-missile defenses in space. To do so would require an effort much like the Manhattan Project that resulted in the creation of the first nuclear weapons.
The president has promised to spend billions more on anti-missile defenses, but Congress won’t go along with a massive program that will cost tens of billions to create the reliable and highly-capable defenses we need.
Now, and in the coming years, Bannon’s words will prove correct. They got us. Kim has achieved the “equilibrium” he says he wants, and we’re not capable of doing much about it.