As of Tuesday afternoon, it had been 74 days since North Korea had tested a ballistic missile on Sept. 15 — long enough for some to imagine that President Trump had successfully turned the screws on Kim Jong Un.
After all, Trump had concluded a triumphant summit in Beijing with China’s Xi Jinping earlier this month. Trump positively slobbered over the Chinese strongman in his eagerness to win his cooperation against North Korea. “You’re a very special man,” Trump told Xi.
And if outreach to China wasn’t enough, Trump was no slouch on the sanctions front either. On Nov. 20, he put North Korea back on the state sponsors of terrorism list, adding fresh sanctions and heaping even more opprobrium on the despotic regime in Pyongyang. A day later, Trump extended more sanctions to foreign firms, including Chinese firms, that trade with North Korea.
Beyond sweet talk and sanctions, Trump also engaged in saber rattling in an attempt to scare the North Korean regime into mending its way. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, he blustered: “The United States has great strength and patience. But if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime; the United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”
When Pyongyang fired back insults against Trump, calling him a “dotard,” the President retaliated with his rhetorical nuclear option — he called Kim “Little Rocket Man,” adding an insult about his height. Trump’s advisers backed up his tough talk with comments to the effect that deterrence would not work with North Korea.
All of this was designed to exert maximum leverage on North Korea. But it hasn’t worked. On Tuesday, North Korea tested its longest-range ballistic missile yet — one that can most likely hit New York or Washington. It is only a matter of time, and not much time at that, before North Korea can miniaturize a nuclear weapon that can fit on one of its ICBMs. In fact North Korea may already have this capability, thus bringing about what Trump has promised to avert — a credible nuclear threat against the continental United States from North Korea.
In light of Trump’s failures so far, his reaction on Tuesday was hardly comforting.
“We’ll take care of it,” he said. “It is a situation that we will handle.”
If the recent past is any indication, neither Trump nor his advisers have any idea how to handle North Korea. In fairness, neither did any of their predecessors. North Korea has taken decades to become the threat that it is today, and no administration has come up with any policy, whether hard-line or soft-line, that will greatly affect North Korean behavior.
That’s because a nuclear program capable of menacing America is seen in Pyongyang as an essential state interest. Kim Jong Un saw what happened to Moammar Khaddafy and Saddam Hussein when they gave up weapons of mass destruction under international pressure, and he doesn’t want that to happen to him. He might even imagine that armed with nukes, he will scare America away from defending South Korea, making possible his family’s long-term dream of uniting the entire peninsula under their tyrannical rule.
In truth, Kim is deluded if he thinks that possession of nuclear weapons will either allow him to enlarge his domain or even to preserve it. Having nuclear weapons did not stop the Soviet Union from imploding, and it was a lot richer and more militarily powerful than North Korea will ever be.
North Korea is a state so poor it cannot even afford to adequately feed its elite troops — a fact that emerged when one of its border guards made a mad dash to freedom in South Korea. He was shot, and wound up in a South Korean hospital where doctors discovered he was full of intestinal worms.
Sooner or later, North Korea will collapse and be absorbed into the far larger, richer and more democratic state to the south. To hasten that day, the U.S. needs to ramp up sanctions on North Korea, just as Trump is doing. But we don’t need to panic now that North Korea’s nuclear capability has grown.
We live with a nuclear Russia and a nuclear China. We can live with a nuclear North Korea. Kim may be evil, but he’s not suicidal — and he knows that nuking the United States will result in his own incineration. The worst thing we could do know would be to launch a preemptive strike, as some in the Trump administration are said to favor.
Such an attack would not eliminate the North Korea nuclear program — we don’t know where all of its nukes are located — but it would increase the risk of a conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary spinning out of control. The wiser course is to stick to deterrence and containment, just as we did for decades with the Soviet Union.