Can the U.S. Wait North Korea Out?

Strategic impatience?

On the eve of July 4th, North Korea set off the mother of all fireworks shows by test-firing a missile that flew for at least 37 minutes into space and back. On a normal trajectory, experts calculate, it would have covered 6,600 kilometers—enough to reach Anchorage, Alaska, and exceeding the technical definition of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Yes, North Korea has an ICBM; it’s only a matter of time before it has an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Washington.

So much for President Trump’s boast on January 2: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”

In reaction to the news that what he claimed would not happen did happen, Trump tweeted: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea … and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”

This is little more than a continuation of the president’s failed policy of the past five-plus months—which, to be fair, is a continuation of the failed policies of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. For years the U.S. has been hoping and wishing that China would put a “heavy move on North Korea” (even if no previous president would have put it in quite those terms). It hasn’t happened, because China fears chaos in North Korea—potentially leading to the reunification of the entire peninsula under an American-allied regime in Seoul—far more than it fears a North Korea nuclear program.

In fact, notwithstanding Trump’s latest tweet, his administration has already been showing signs of giving up hopes that Chinese pressure would stop the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons program. Recently, the Trump administration has gone ahead with a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, stepped up U.S. Navy patrols in the Chinese-claimed South China Sea, and, most significantly of all, applied sanctions against China’s Bank of Dandong for its role in financing North Korea.

This recalls the Bush administration’s all-too-short-lived sanctions on Banco Delta Asia, a North Korean money-laundering center located in Macau. Imposed in 2005, the U.S. sanctions on Banco Delta Asia, freezing $25 million in North Korea funds, did enough damage to convince Pyongyang to agree to the 2007 “action plan,” which was supposed to culminate in the dismantlement of its nuclear program. That, in turn, led the Bush administration to lift the sanctions, only to have negotiations break down over North Korea’s predictable refusal to engage in verifiable disarmament.

Today, China and Russia are once again raising the prospect of further talks with North Korea, which will supposedly freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a freeze on major U.S. military exercises with South Korea. Let’s hope the Trump administration is smart enough not to fall for this ruse. It would play right into North Korea’s hands by suggesting that South Korea’s legitimate self-defense activities are somehow comparable to North Korea’s illegal nuclear and missile development activities in violation of United Nations sanctions.

If the U.S. were to stop military exercises, the quality of the deterrent confronting North Korea would deteriorate. Moreover, the already tense U.S.-South Korea alliance would be put under further strain.

If the U.S. doesn’t engage in talks with North Korea, what should it do? Sen. Lindsay Graham suggests a preemptive military strike to prevent the deployment of a nuclear-tipped ICBM. As John F. Kennedy said about calls for a military strike on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this would be “a hell of a gamble.” The world is lucky that Kennedy did not gamble, and we should not gamble today on military action against a nuclear-armed state with 10,000 artillery tubes zeroed in on Seoul.

Anyone who imagines that the U.S. can stage a “surgical” strike to take out all of North Korea’s missile and nuclear sites has been watching too many Jason Bourne movies. The U.S. intelligence community simply doesn’t have the “situational awareness” necessary for such an undertaking. If the U.S. did initiate military action, there is a real risk that the conflict would spiral out of control. There’s no doubt that Pyongyang would ultimate lose Korean War II, but the cost in human life could be prohibitive—and ultimately unnecessary.

Remember that North Korea is a dysfunctional state, one of the poorest on the planet. It has defied predictions of its early demise so far, but a state so bereft of any success beyond its nuclear program cannot last indefinitely. Sooner or later—whether it is a matter of months or, more likely, decades—it will collapse.

The U.S. should not panic in the meantime even if North Korea acquires the capability to nuke Washington. We have faced the threat of a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union since the 1940s and from China since the 1960s. We successfully deterred both regimes, even when they were led by blood-thirsty lunatics such as Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin. There is nothing to indicate that Kim Jong-un is suicidal or even expansionist; he is simply building nuclear weapons to ensure the survival of his regime.

Having nuclear weapons did not prevent the USSR’s collapse, and it will not prevent North Korea’s. The U.S. needs to stay patient, not do or say anything rash that could precipitate a crisis (please, Mr. President, no more tweets!), and rely on deterrence to contain the North Korean menace until it collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.