Within a year, North Korea will have operational missiles capable of threatening the American homeland. In addition, their ongoing nuclear program generates bombs that could fall into the hands of anti-Western terrorists or Iran. There are only four possible courses of action: taking unilateral military action, persuading the North Koreans to give up their nuclear program, accepting a nuclear North Korea, and collaborating with other countries to arrive at a new political solution.
Any unilateral military action by the U.S. would quickly escalate into war, since Kim Jong-Un would certainly retaliate. A war would be extremely costly. Millions of tons of DPRK (North Korea) ordinance and 17,000 artillery pieces are aimed at Seoul, just 35 miles from the border with North Korea. The 28,000 American troops in Korea would suffer huge casualties, and millions of Koreans would die.
We have attempted, without success, to use diplomatic and economic pressure to persuade the North Koreans. The Kim regime realizes that nuclear weapons are its best defense against future American pressure. The latest UN sanctions will hurt the North Korean population but will have no effect on the regime’s nuclear program.
As for accepting a nuclear DPNK, there is no guarantee that this would work, given that it is ruled by a madman. Tens of millions of Americans in Alaska and the West Coast would live under constant threat of nuclear annihilation.
This leaves only one viable option: an end to the Kim Jong-Un regime through a cooperative effort of the U.S. and China. North Korea receives 90% of its foreign exchange from China. North Korea’s military depends on spare parts and technical support from China. China has military assets that could threaten the regime across its undefended northern boundary. We and the Chinese could jointly impose upon the entire Korean peninsula a political solution, with a drawing down of military forces on both sides and the introduction of power-sharing and coalition government between North and South, finally bringing the Korean war that began in 1950 to an official end.
The Chinese won’t help us out of the goodness of their hearts, of course. They have little or no strategic benefit to be gained by the elimination of the DPRK threat, and leaving things as they are permits them to shake us down on trade negotiations. For twenty years we’ve appealed to appeal to our “common interest” in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program, but this badly misreads the strategic point of view of China. To China, North Korea is a crucial strategic asset in their competition with us in the Western Pacific. To us and our allies (Japan and South Korea), North Korea represents a far greater threat. China will not sacrifice such a key piece in the geopolitical chess game without some compensating gain.
It’s also a grave miscalculation to assume that we can make the Chinese serious about regime change in North Korea merely by the use of threats alone. We simply don’t have enough leverage through the use of economic sanctions. The Chinese will not sacrifice their long-term strategic advantage in Korea to avoid short-term economic pain from American sanctions, and such sanctions would hurt us as much as them.
We must therefore turn from the use of sticks to carrots, offering the Chinese strategic gains that are commensurate with their loss of North Korea as an irritant. What that would require is a Grand Bargain that (1) contains the DPRK threat, (2) keeps the South China Sea seal lanes open and (3) recognizes China’s legitimate interests in its sphere of influence. With the Monroe Doctrine, we invented the idea of a country’s sphere of influence. And we think it benefits us and not them?
Trump will be accused of being soft on China if he secures such a deal, but politically it would be a huge gain for him. The American people can see the value in protection from North Korean missiles, while the recognition of Chinese territorial claims over a few disputed islands in the South China Sea would be inconsequential. National security is a matter of making reasonable tradeoffs. A great leader does not simply seek common interests but creates them through imaginative diplomacy.
The Trump administration has a great opportunity to promote world peace and American security for generations to come. The President and Secretary Tillerson should seek as soon as possible a U.S.-China summit to promote American interests and international stability.
Robert C. Koons is the author (with Tim Pickavance) of The Atlas of Reality. He teaches philosophy at the University of Texas.