If there was a message in North Korea’s launch of a new missile capable of reaching anywhere in the United States, it was that America’s strategy toward that country is failing — and that war may be looming.
The American public is far too complacent about the possibility of a war with North Korea, one that could be incomparably bloodier than any U.S. war in my lifetime. One assessment suggests that 1 million people could die on the first day.
“If we have to go to war to stop this, we will,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN after the latest missile test. “We’re headed toward a war if things don’t change.”
President Donald Trump himself has said he stands ready to “totally destroy” North Korea. His national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, says Trump “is willing to do anything necessary” to prevent North Korea from threatening the U.S. with nuclear weapons — which is precisely what Kim Jong Un did.
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One lesson from history: When a president and his advisers say they’re considering a war, take them seriously.
The international security experts I’ve consulted offer estimates of the risk of war from 15 percent to more than 50 percent. That should be staggering.
Trump said Wednesday that new sanctions were in the works and that “the situation will be handled.” But he has already been quite effective in increasing the economic pressure on North Korea, and it’s difficult to see how a 10th round of sanctions — after nine rounds so far since 2006 — will make a huge difference.
The problem is twofold. First, the U.S. goal for North Korea — complete denuclearization — is implausible. Second, our strategy of economic sanctions is ineffective against an isolated regime that earlier accepted the death by famine of perhaps 10 percent of its population.
In short, we have a failed strategy to achieve a hopeless goal.
The U.S. is also pursuing other approaches, including cyberattacks and missile defense, that are worthwhile but won’t force North Korea to hand over nuclear weapons. That’s the context in which military options become tempting for Trump.
This problem is not Trump’s fault, and he’s right that previous administrations (back to the first President George Bush’s in the late 1980s) have mostly kicked the can down the road. He’s also right that we’re running out of road, now that North Korea has shown the ability to send a missile some 8,000 miles, putting all of the U.S. within its theoretical range.
(We may not be vulnerable yet. North Korea may not be able to attach a nuclear warhead to the missile so that it could survive the heat and friction of re-entering the atmosphere. But if it doesn’t have that capacity yet, it’s making swift progress toward that goal. It’s important to stop North Korea from the final testing needed to be confident of its ability to strike the U.S.)
Some analysts believe in retrospect that it would have made sense for the U.S. to have attacked North Korea’s nuclear sites just as it was beginning its program, in the late 1980s. But even then, North Korea had the capacity to rain chemical and biological weapons on Seoul.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon was tempted to strike at North Korea after it shot down an American spy plane, killing all 31 people aboard. Aides warned that any military strike could escalate into all-out war, and eventually Nixon backed down. Ever since, American presidents have likewise been periodically tempted to strike North Korea after one provocation or another, but have ended up showing restraint for fear of a cataclysmic war.
Hawks say that the continued American restraint has fostered a perception in North Korea that the U.S. is a paper tiger, and frankly there’s something to that. I worry that the U.S. and North Korea are both overconfident. On my recent visit to North Korea, officials repeatedly said that with their bunkers and tunnels, and ability to strike back, they could not only survive a nuclear war with the U.S., but would even prevail.
In Washington, there’s sometimes a similar delusion that a war would be over in a day after the first barrage of American missiles. Remember that tiny Serbia withstood more than two months of NATO bombing in 1999 before agreeing to withdraw from Kosovo; North Korea is incomparably more prepared for enduring and waging war.
I also worry that North Koreans are sometimes perceived as cartoonish, goose-stepping robots — a perfect, dehumanized enemy from central casting — and that an administration beset by problems at home may be more likely to project strength, take risks and stumble into a war.
The last, best hope for the Korean Peninsula is some kind of negotiated deal in which Kim freezes his nuclear programs. North Korea just may be hinting in its latest statements that it is open to negotiations.
So let’s try talking, rather than risk the first exchange of nuclear weapons in the history of our planet.