War

How to Beat North Korea at Nuclear Blackmail

Kim will never give up the weapons that guarantee his survival. But the U.S. can't roll over, either.

Live with it.

Source: AFP photo/KCNA via KNS

“Strategic patience” is out as the U.S. approach to North Korea, and “strategic accountability” is the new term of art. That’s according to an op-ed article by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “The object of our peaceful pressure campaign,” they write, “is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

While I heartedly approve of finally providing clarity beyond President Donald Trump’s bombastic statements, we should be realistic. I understand the reasons for the message -- not the least of which is a shot across the bow to China -- but let me deliver some tough love: North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons, and any discussion indicating otherwise is wishful thinking.

There is only one way the Korean peninsula will be “denuclearized,” and it’s through war. Not a surgical strike against a single facility, but a bloodbath -- as Secretary Mattis knows.

Kim wants nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of preventing the fall of his regime to outside forces. The U.S. can officially state that it has no interest in regime change, but Kim knows what happens when a dictator like him acquiesces.

President George H.W. Bush went to war with Saddam Hussein, but stopped short of removing him from power. In return, Saddam had to forgo his programs for weapons of mass destruction and submit to United Nations inspections. This he did, and a little over a decade later, President George W. Bush destroyed Saddam’s regime. That same president also persuaded Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi to give up his nuclear ambitions and rejoin the world of respected nations. Qaddafi complied, even helping the U.S. in the war on terrorism. A decade later, Barack Obama’s secretary of state gleefully bragged of Qaddafi, “We came, we saw, he died.”

Kim is only 33 years old and plans to be the Supreme Leader for the rest of his life. He has no interest in what any current administration says, because the next one can change its mind -- and likely will. That’s why he will never, ever, succumb to international pressure to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear capability.

Sanctions are often held out by the so-called experts as the solution. They point out how the latest set was put in place by a vote of 15-0 at the UN Security Council -- evidence that the entire world is behind them. But this is at least the seventh set of UN sanctions against North Korea passed unanimously since 2006 -- yet the Kim regime is now on the verge of a nuclear-tipped ICBM. I’m sure this time it will be different. Sanctions would only work against Kim if he came home to dinner one day and there was no food. It’s going to take a while for that to occur.

Some have pointed to the apparent success of sanctions against Iran, which led to the international agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons programs. But the comparison is flawed for several reasons. First, Iran was just beginning its nuclear ambitions. North Korea, by the latest estimations, already has 60 fully functional nuclear weapons. Second, while Iran is not a democratic utopia by any stretch of the imagination, it does hold elections and has a middle class that can express a voice, and thus sanctions have bite. North Korea has no such institutions, and Kim does not care about his people, only about the survival of his regime.

It’s a simple equation, really: Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula will require force. The weapons and the Kim regime are permanently intertwined. Deterrence theory isn’t that complicated. In order to alter a state’s behavior, one threatens something that state holds more valuable than the behavior in question. Yet in the case of North Korea, they’re one and the same. Saying we’ll destroy the regime if it continues its nuclear program will not alter the action precisely because Kim believes that losing his nuclear capability will cause the destruction of his regime.

Why does Kim feel the need to develop a missile with the capability to strike America? In part because he hears the rhetoric of U.S. officials such as Senator Lindsey Graham, who said, “If there’s going to be a war … it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.” That’s a signal to Kim that his current capability isn’t enough to ensure his survival -- but developing the ability to strike the continental U.S. might be.

I’m not saying that we should roll over and let the regime do whatever it wants. We should continue with sanctions and to push all other pressure points that are available, but with a clear understanding of what we can and cannot accomplish. Yes, Americans face great risks associated with North Korea’s nuclear program, but some of them are clearly overblown.

For example, I hear a lot of talk about “nuclear blackmail” and how we’ve pretty much had enough of it. But I’m honestly confused by this argument. When, in the entire history of our interaction with North Korea, has the U.S. succumbed to a threat? This year we planned our annual Foal Eagle military exercise with South Korea, and Pyongyang screamed that they’d obliterate the South if we went ahead. We did so. Nothing happened. That occurs every year.

Likewise, when Washington started generating support for this latest round of sanctions, Pyongyang stated that if they passed the UN, America would feel the pain a “thousand-fold.” Yet the sanctions passed, and no pain has been felt. And will that change if the North Koreans develop the ability to strike the U.S.? No, for two reasons.

First, Kim solely cares about the survivability of his regime. It makes no sense for North Korea to attack us knowing our response would be its destruction. It’s why all this talk about Kim threatening the U.S. forces on Guam is ridiculous. There is no way the North Koreans would ever actually strike Guam. That would be like getting into a shouting match in a bar, and instead of hitting the belligerent drunk, kicking his dog. You’ve done nothing to alter your opponent’s ability to fight, and given him every reason to take you down.  

Second, the crisis has re-energized the Strategic Defense Initiative debate from the Reagan years. If we had continued development of that system after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this entire discussion would be moot. Unfortunately, the Cold War ended, and with it most of our desire to develop a competent anti-ballistic-missile defense.

Currently, we have a nascent, inconsistent ability to defeat ICBMs; but it will get better because of Kim’s threat, and a hell of a lot faster than North Korea’s ability to develop an ICBM re-entry vehicle. That, in my mind, is the way to go.

In the end, there are two ways to defeat blackmail: Kill the blackmailer, or make his threat irrelevant. In this case, killing him is inordinately painful, but making the threat irrelevant is not. We will never get Kim to give up his nuclear weapons, but making them worthless is not a bridge too far.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Brad Taylor at Brad@bradtaylorbooks.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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