Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are doing their best to make a bad situation in the Korean Peninsula worse.
For now, they are only hurling abuse and threats at each other, but there is no sign of either de-escalating their confrontation over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
During the Cold War, MAD (mutually assured destruction) kept the super-powers from starting a conflict that might end in global annihilation. The Korean standoff is bedevilled by another kind of madness.
The US, China, Russia and others have been trying to stop North Korea developing nuclear weapons since the late 1980s. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have tried many different approaches: from bilateral talks and aid programmes to military threats and economic sanctions. They have flattered China — hoping to persuade it to put pressure on its “client” in Pyongyang — and (particularly under Trump) threatened it with economic punishment for failing to do so.
But China fears the collapse of Kim Jong-Un’s regime more than his nuclear weapons, both because it might result in large-scale refugee flows into China and because Korean unification might put US troops on China’s border.
If Washington had had a viable military option for taking out North Korea’s nuclear programme, it would have used it before the North had a viable nuclear device. The cost of conflict would be immense even if Kim did not use his nuclear arsenal: Seoul lies within easy range of North Korea’s large holdings of artillery and missiles.
It is time to accept that North Korea will soon become the ninth country on earth with a functional nuclear weapon, and work out how to deal with that as an appalling but unavoidable fact. That means defending the non-proliferation regime; deterring conflict; and diminishing the risk of accidental nuclear war.
To prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, the permanent members of the UN Security Council must ensure that the North Korean regime continues to suffer economically and politically, and show that countries that do not seek nuclear weapons end up more prosperous and secure than those that do. That means — among other things — sticking to their side of the bargain that ended Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Trump administration must stop looking for ways to declare Iran in breach: if the deal breaks down, the message will be that proliferation is a better strategy than co-operation.
But defending the non-proliferation regime will not take away North Korea’s weapons. Pyongyang must therefore be deterred from using them. The Trump administration is doing a better job in this regard: it is strengthening its forces in the area; reinforcing its allies’ defences; and making clear that any decision by North Korea either to launch a nuclear attack, or to use its nuclear weapons to deter an American response to a conventional attack, would have immense consequences.
But one country’s prudent steps to reinforce deterrence may be seen by the other as preparations for a pre-emptive strike. If there is one thing worse than North Korea having nuclear weapons, it is a situation in which the United States and North Korea misunderstand each other’s military activity.
The two have very few bilateral contacts. But nuclear powers need to know when to worry and when to stay calm. In the Cold War, even though a US-Soviet hotline had operated since 1963, the Soviet Union still came close to confusing a NATO nuclear command-post exercise in 1983 with preparations for a pre-emptive strike.
To diminish the risk of nuclear conflict occurring as a result of such misinterpretations, the US (and ideally other nuclear powers) should propose informal discussions on nuclear issues to the North Koreans. The US has had several similar dialogues with China over more than a decade, led (among other organisations) by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the US Naval Post-Graduate School. They involve think-tankers and officials, but are not inter-governmental talks, allowing participants more freedom to speak.
According to the US Institute for Defense Analyses, over an extended period they have given the US and China a better understanding of each other’s “motivations, roles and missions, doctrine, strategy, posture (and) readiness.” It is doubtful that Washington and Pyongyang have much comparable information about the other.
It will be anathema to many current and former US officials to “reward” North Korea with such talks — and getting an inevitably suspicious North to engage in them may take a very long time. But neither the silent treatment nor Trumpian insults will make Pyongyang’s weapons go away; they just increase the risk of accidental Armageddon.