Over the last 25 years, the U.S., Europe, South Korea, Japan, and everybody else that has tried to keep the Kim dynasty on a short leash have become used to ballistic missile launches by the reclusive east Asian nation of North Korea. W
Whilte not a first, this week's launch of a North Korean intermediate range ballistic missile was far from normal, however. It flew over Japanese territory, an arc that North Korea usually avoids due to the geopolitical complications of traversing a neighbor's airspace (Japanese citizens got text messages from the government on their cellphones warning about possible debris from the missile).
The test came less than a week after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed naive hope that Kim Jong Un was starting to restrain himself due to the administration's efforts to intimidate him. President Trump appears to have taken the latest launch as a personal insult, tweeting that "[T]he U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years.Talking is not the answer!" Defense Secretary Jim Mattis contradicted his boss a few hours later, telling reporters that diplomacy always remains an option.
It's of little use to read too much into Trump's tweets. Maybe he was venting, or maybe he truly believes Washington should cut off dialogue with the North Koreans for good. It's difficult not to feel some sympathy for this position; Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and (to a lesser extent) Barack Obama have all extended a hand to Pyongyang in the past and have all come away with an empty palm of spit. Clinton had the most success with his Agreed Framework deal, which froze and rolled back Pyongyang's plutonium program. But that unraveled after U.S. intelligence agencies caught the North Koreans red-handed enriching uranium.
Shutting down communication, though, is counterproductive and dangerous — the U.S. reduces its options to the unpalatable: bad, really bad, and catastrophic.
Secondary sanctions on Chinese banks and firms connected with Pyongyang could have some effect, but no serious analyst believes Beijing would respond seriously — they've already factored these consequences into their decision. The Trump Treasury Department has been much more aggressive in slapping penalties on Chinese businesses and smaller financial institutions than the Obama administration was, and Beijing has largely shrugged its shoulders after a strongly-worded statement from the Foreign Ministry.
Prohibiting large banks on Chinese soil from operating in the U.S. financial system, however, would be an altogether different, and more serious, action in Xi Jinping's eyes. How that would play out we won't know for sure, but it's not out of the imagination to anticipate the Chinese navy making the South China Sea issue an even bigger problem. Rather than "solve" the North Korea problem, we will have succeeded only in creating more challenges for ourselves.
A military option would be downright insane. Notwithstanding some careless hand-waving from interventionist lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. (who flippantly
The U.S. likely wouldn't be able to discover and bomb every nuclear facility in North Korea, where human intelligence is basically collected by defectors who have escaped the country. And even if every facility and weapon were located, Kim Jong Un w
The only prudent option is to deter North Korea, which already has nuclear weapons, just as Washington did with the Soviet Union and China (far more powerful and dangerous adversaries) during the Cold War and continues to do today.
Kim is a sociopath, a brute, a murderer, a war criminal, a narcissist obsessed with his own sense of glory, but there isn't any evidence he is suicidal. The fear among the North Korean elite of getting annihilated by U.S. military power would preclude an unprovoked nuclear attack.
Hopefully, this is what Trump means when he says "talking is not the answer." Hopefully, this is code for "we are switching gears toward containment." Because the other interpretation would mean a lot of dead Koreans, Japanese, and Americans, the destruction of the world's 11th largest economy (South Korea), and a conflict that would be so violent that it would make the last decade of war look like a minor traffic stop.
The U.S. policy of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula went out the window as soon as Pyongyang exploded its first nuclear device in 2006. Eleven years later, North Korea boasts at least 20-25 nuclear warheads.
For the U.S., two policies remain: preventive war, which is immoral and would cost far too much, or deterrence, which has worked against every nuclear-armed country since scientists discovered how to split the atom.
Deterrence is the only policy which will protect American security at an acceptable cost.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
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