Forget about putting the nuclear genie back in any bottle in Pyongyang. North Korea will have — and will not be dissuaded from possessing — a deliverable nuclear weapon.
So now it’s up to President Donald Trump to exercise a degree of verbal restraint — which many fear he could be lacking — that would allow historic forces to hold off Armageddon.
His recent tweet praising Kim Jong Un for “a very wise and well reasoned decision (to refrain from attacking Guam). The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!” — could well be read as a threat, some Korea watchers believe, a challenge to the thin-skinned dictator.
The 10 days of joint US-South Korean war games, however, that kicked off Monday are only calculated to rub salt in a still-fresh wound, with Kim little inclined to cut the United States any slack.
A gesture, however slim — like an early end to the war games — could pay enormous dividends, while costing the United States little.
At the moment, we have a couple of things to be thankful for. First, Trump hasn’t ripped up the Iran nuclear treaty as he promised throughout his campaign. If he had, we’d currently be looking at two rogue states with nukes.
Second, the role of China — North Korea’s neighbor and principal guarantor of its existence — which has its own nuclear weapons, not to mention millions of citizens within an immediate blast or fallout radius of any nuclear retaliation by the United States, should Kim be so inclined as to provoke nuclear war.
With these two “blessings” in place, how do we cope with the reality of a nuclearized North Korea?
Quite simply, we must find a diplomatic route to a mutually assured destruction, or MAD, regime that can serve to monitor and contain North Korea. Mutually assured destruction is a concept that helped keep nuclear war at bay throughout the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union — each with by far the largest and most easily deployed nuclear arsenals — recognized that the launch of nuclear weapons by one against the other would lead to certain destruction of its own nation and people. As the nuclear club multiplied, this meta-stability was somehow maintained. India and Pakistan cancel each other out under their MAD regime. When China came on board, Beijing recognized that if it used its nukes, the United States would obliterate it.
This began to break down when that the madman dictator Moammar Gadhafi seemed on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon of his own in the late 1990s. After the American invasion of Iraq, Gadhafi recognized what might be in store for him if he didn’t dismantle his nuclear weapons program, which he agreed to do, shipping abroad 25 tons of equipment and documentation, including enrichment centrifuge components.
The problem today is that Kim is said to have paid close attention to what eventually happened to Gadhafi when, mortally wounded, he was found hiding in a drain in the late days of the Libyan Revolution.
Kim does not in any sense want to commit what he would see as the ultimate in existential foolhardiness — giving up his nuclear ambitions prematurely.
Still, the principle of mutually assured destruction has held for more than a half-century. But there are elements that are essential if it is to continue to hold Armageddon at bay with the arrival of North Korea.
One key element of MAD is that no nation can needlessly, or mindlessly, provoke another. Under such a rule, it would be essential to prevent our President from further antagonizing the one head of state who may have a hair trigger and even thinner skin — Kim. He’s less than half Trump’s age, with even less self-control, or at least constraints on his behavior. It should never be forgotten that Kim ordered the assassination of his uncle and has been accused by South Korea in the killing of his half-brother for offenses that would barely have gotten them fired from Trump’s White House or even “The Apprentice.”
We may also now find that Japan and even South Korea feel a need for their own nuclear arsenals. Already, the Japanese government is considering authorizing development of its own offensive military capability for the first time since it lost World War II. And South Korea’s President has asked the United States for permission to build more powerful ballistic missiles. Monitoring and containing Kim’s nuclear arsenal is essential if we are to restrain a proliferation of nuclear arsenals across the Pacific Rim that will truly rock the foundations of MAD.
But how long must we exercise such restraint or live in such a potentially unstable universe? Quite possibly for a while — at least in political or diplomatic terms. We could see 20 to 30 years before there is real regime change in North Korea that holds any promise of reigning in its nuclear ambitions or restoring some balance to its diplomatic and military priorities.
Such a change is far from impossible. Remember we never thought regime change would arrive in the Soviet Union or Libya, yet both occurred in the blink of an historian’s eye. This time, the wait may be more fraught and will likely mean some fairly dramatic shifts in our perspective and especially that of Trump.
We must begin to find some means of demonstrating to Kim a modicum of the respect, which he clearly craves as a future member of the nuclear club — the same “respect,” incidentally, that we gave Gadhafi up to the moment he was deposed. It was also the same respect Ronald Reagan afforded Mikhail Gorbachev until the very moment when communism collapsed of its own weight nearly three decades ago.
One option might be not to cancel the bi-annual military maneuvers, which have been held twice a year for four decades, since a cancellation would looking like a sign of weakness. But scaling back their duration and pitching it as a good-faith gesture could stop Kim from feeling he has to issue threats as a response.
Meanwhile, we must devote all our energies to making sure that none of Kim’s nukes fall into the hands of individuals or groups that no one can contain and who will have no restraints on their use.
Of course, each nuclear weapon, once exploded, leaves behind debris that carries quite a distinct “signature” that can immediately identify its country of origin. Kim must be made to understand that in such a case, the creator of the device will be punished as assuredly as whoever detonates it. Such is the new lexicon of MAD.