North Korea really is an impossible problem, isn’t it? I’m as opposed to war as anyone, but as a military man I’m not afraid of exercising the military option when it’s the only option available. Can we allow North Korea to have nuclear-tipped ICBMs? I don’t think any sane person would say yes. How can we stop them? As horrible an option as it is, the military option might be the only one that’ll work.
Diplomacy of course comes first. Historically, we’ve negotiated with the Norks through a third party, China. From all I can see, China’s been unable or unwilling to put pressure on North Korea, and that diplomatic avenue has turned out to be a dead end.
How about direct government-to-government talks with North Korea? We haven’t tried that yet. South Korea would have to lead, and we’d have to be invited by both nations. South Korea hasn’t had such talks apart from a few goodwill efforts in the 1990s, and it’s unlikely the Norks would respond to a new invitation. Nothing the Kim regime has ever done suggests it would be willing to negotiate its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile capability away, or even to sit down at the same table to talk about something as non-threatening as opening the border to family visits.
What else is there? Sanctions to cut the flow of cash and materials into North Korea, so as to impair their ability to build nuclear weapons and ICBMs? We’ve been doing that for decades now, in concert with South Korea, China, and other Asian nations … and yet somehow the impoverished Kim regime keeps building weapons and missiles.
Look, I don’t see many options left. Either we stand by and allow North Korea to build more and better nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them, or we stop them before they get there.
Standing by and letting it happen is in fact an option. It’s the option we and the South Koreans have chosen over the decades, and if we could trust the North Koreans never to use their nukes, it would be the sane and responsible choice. But it’s clear we can’t trust them. Or rather, we can … we can trust them to use those weapons against South Korea, Japan, and potentially the USA some day.
Meanwhile, NK crosses red line after red line, and we and the South Koreans do nothing. Well, getting back to what I said at the top, South Korea has to lead on whatever action we take, whether it’s direct talks, additional sanctions, or military strikes. Why? Because they will be the first to suffer North Korean retaliation … and they will suffer horribly, even though their military and ours will prevail in the end (and while South Korea’s government and military may be taking North Korea’s nuclear missile threat seriously, the population of South Korea is said to be happy with the status quo).
I fear, though, the window for any kind of limited pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability has closed. Why? Lack of American leadership and will. We no longer have an intelligent, responsible president and commander-in-chief. As with our NATO partners, South Korea may think it no longer has a reliable ally and protector. In addition to the near void at the top of our government, we barely have a State Department. I don’t know what state the US military command structure is in, but I do know there are a lot of vacant posts in the Pentagon. So while we don’t know what the current administration might do, it’s likely it’ll fuck everything up.
Which brings us back to the stand-by-and-twiddle-our-thumbs option, at least until 2020 or potentially 2024. By then, North Korea will have progressed far enough that our only military option will be a pre-emptive nuclear attack, an option so hellish it’s effectively off the table. Like I said, an impossible problem. And it’s our move.