War Stories

Unstrategic Impatience

North Korea’s nukes are a long-term worry, not an immediate crisis. Trump’s belligerence could change that.

North Korea Missile Parade
Missiles drive past North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other officials in a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung, in Pyongyang on April 15.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

North Korea is a knotty problem, but there’s no cause for the hysteria that President Trump and his aides have been pumping up in recent days, and it’s time to turn down the heat and the noise, before someone gets hurt.

The worry (and it’s a legitimate worry) is that, sometime soon, the North Koreans will test another ballistic missile or nuclear weapon, which would, yet again, violate a U.N. resolution and put them one step closer to threatening American troops and allies in East Asia—and maybe, years from now, the United States itself. But there is no immediate crisis, no threat that must be staved off now or never. And yet President Trump is sending an aircraft-carrier task force and a guided-missile submarine toward North Korean shores. At the same time, he has summoned all 100 U.S. senators to a classified briefing on the subject, to be conducted on Wednesday, at the White House, by the secretaries of defense and state, the director of national intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. military exercises in the region are routine, as are top-secret briefings to select lawmakers. But to hold a briefing for all senators, by the administration’s top security officials, is unusual. To hold it at the White House (or, more precisely, the Executive Office Building next door to the White House), instead of in the Capitol, is unprecedented. And to do all this while the deadliest warships in the U.S. Navy’s non-nuclear fleet dart toward the country in question—well, the leaders in the region needn’t be paranoid to infer that Trump might be preparing to launch an attack on North Korea.

Still, it’s unlikely that Trump actually intends to launch an attack. By all accounts, his top advisers, U.S. allies in the region (especially the leaders of South Korea and Japan), and his new best friend, Chinese President Xi Jinping, are counseling against military action. But who knows what Trump is thinking from one moment to the next? His unpredictability and impulsiveness might have a deterring effect, as in an accidental version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory.” Precisely because he doesn’t know how Trump will react, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might tone down his provocative ways, even adopt a certain caution.

But let’s say Kim ignores Trump’s unwitting stab at the ploy and risks another missile or nuclear test. Will Trump—riled by Kim’s persistence or feeling a need to display “resolve” and “credibility”—launch a volley of cruise missiles and more at the test sites, at some nuclear facilities, or even at Kim’s hangouts in Pyongyang?

Most North Korea–watchers are convinced that, in this scenario, Kim would retaliate with an attack—possibly a bring-them-all-down-with-me attack—on U.S. bases and allies, not necessarily with nuclear weapons but with a barrage of artillery shells. North Korea’s military has thousands of these shells deployed on the border with South Korea (whose capital, Seoul, sits only 35 miles away) as well as on its eastern shore (within firing range of Japan). North Korea’s live-fire long-range artillery drills on Tuesday were no doubt meant as a “signal” of what Trump should expect if he follows through on his own threat.

No one could possibly want a military conflict, with hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of casualties on both sides. But a mix of mutual bluff, bluster, ego, and insecurity—fueled by heavy firepower and an itchy trigger-finger or two—makes for a potentially lethal concoction. In the annals of history, wars have erupted from less combustive kindling.

Retired Gen. John Kelly, secretary of homeland security, said this week that “the minute” North Korea gets a single nuclear-armed missile with the range to hit the United States, “we are at grave risk as a nation.” Really? The United States survived three decades of Cold War when the Soviet Union had more than 1,000 such missiles; and while Kim—like his father and grandfather, who reigned in Pyongyang before him—seems more voluble and risk-prone than the commissars who ruled the Kremlin, his prime imperative is to preserve his regime. There is no evidence that he renders the basic principles of nuclear deterrence obsolete.

At least Kelly acknowledged that the specter of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile lies some years in the future. Some of his colleagues seem to be in more of a hurry. Vice President Mike Pence, during his visit last week to South Korea, said “the era of ‘strategic patience’ is over.” He was referring to President Obama’s phrase for a policy that recognized the limits of U.S. military power against North Korea and that focused instead on sanctions and containment as tools for eroding the Kim regime over time. Strategic patience may have borne scant fruit so far, but what is Pence’s alternative—unstrategic impatience?

Trump is not going to order a strike on North Korean soil, not even in retaliation to another missile or nuclear test, as long as South Korea or Japan has anything to say about it. If he does order a strike in defiance of their protests, then say goodbye to South Korea and Japan, among others, as allies—and that’s the best outcome. (The worst is the end of alliance plus a massive death toll.)

On the other hand, if the North Koreans do test another missile or nuke, and if Trump in his wisdom does not respond with military force, then his bellicose warnings of the past week—the threatening tweets, the siren-laced briefing, the gunboat demarche—would seem, in retrospect, like the growls of a paper tiger.

It is probably true that the North Korean problem won’t end without the demise of the Kim regime, but military intervention isn’t the only route to regime change, and U.S. airstrikes have proved particularly ill-suited to the enterprise. There is no doubt, as argued in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (in an article titled “Getting Tough on North Korea”), that the Kim family has exploited all efforts at diplomatic engagement and economic aid, returning trust and favor with self-aggrandizement and deceit.

Yet there is also some record of success at this game; the Agreed Framework of 1994, negotiated by Bill Clinton’s administration, dismantled North Korea’s plutonium-reprocessing plant, installed international inspectors, and nearly opened additional pathways, including a ban on missile tests, until diplomacy broke down—partly because the U.S. Congress didn’t fund the energy aid that the deal promised, partly because North Korea started enriching uranium (an alternative path to nukes that the accord did not prohibit), and partly because George W. Bush pulled out of the deal when he became president.

It is also the case that economic pressures—especially the set of secondary sanctions that Obama put in place toward the end of his presidency—have started to have some effect on China’s willingness to pressure Kim. The Kim regime has also begun to accommodate proto-capitalist markets to provide consumer goods. This has led to the opening up of North Korea to Western exposure and influence, which, though very limited at the moment, could sire ruptures in the near future.

Finally, for better or for worse, we have no choice but to deal with North Korea diplomatically. South Korea is probably about to elect a president who is far more disposed to engagement with North Korea and far more resistant to confrontation; China—the country most capable of pressuring Kim—is not going to apply so much pressure that the regime collapses suddenly, setting off a refugee crisis and a South Korean (which is to say, U.S.–backed) takeover of the entire peninsula. So there is no alternative to diplomacy. It should be a complex diplomacy, consisting of coercion as well as concessions. But one thing the mix should not include—the thing that’s most likely to set back desired progress—is a threat of military force that no one wants to see carried out and can’t be carried out without catastrophic consequences. That’s the path that Trump seems to be treading now, and the grown-ups around him need to pry him off.