For more than a quarter-century, four U.S. leaders have tried, and failed, to halt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Presidents Clinton, Bush the Younger and Obama had a nascent threat on their hands. But with the surprising Nov. 29 launch of a missile that can reach any target inside the U.S., the threat has become real for President Trump.
Trump has made it clear North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons; North Korea has made it just as plain it has no intention of doing so. “While we were talking, they were building,” William Perry, defense secretary and later a negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton administration, said Dec. 5. “Now they a nuclear arsenal, and they’re very happy with it.”
The resulting stalemate—preserving the status quo—favors North Korea.
So now what?
First of all, we have to acknowledge where we are. Despite decades of American and allied bluster and threats, North Korea is now a nuclear power capable of striking the U.S. While its 25 million may live in poverty, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un knows that nuclear-weapons wealth could guarantee the survival of him and his regime—his family’s key goal—for the foreseeable future.
Hindsight, if course, is 20/20, but U.S. policy toward North Korea has been leavened with wishful thinking and high hopes unsullied by tough action. High-level U.S. visits and multilateral signed agreements have done little to deter Kim (in office since 2011); his father, Kim Jong-il (1994-2011); or his grandfather, Kim Il-sung (1948-1994). Much of North Korea’s push for nuclear weapons took place when the U.S. was distracted by its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 9/11 attacks.
“It is easy to play the partisan blame game, but North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and its slow progress on the means to deliver them to U.S. territories like Guam, if not to Hawaii, Alaska, and the U.S. West Coast, is a testament to decades of diplomatic and strategic failure on the part of almost every U.S. administration, regardless of party,” Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in August, before North Korea’s latest test. “The cost of this failure is grave and growing, and may be counted not only in billions of dollars but also in millions of lives.”
We are closer now to nuclear war than we have been since the Cuban missile crisis 55 years ago. But this is a different kind of showdown. Back in 1962, the U.S. and Soviet Union glowered at one another over Moscow’s secret move to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba. After a tense 13 days, the Soviets pulled back from the brink in exchange for a secret promise by Washington to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. That drama unfolded on a stage featuring experienced actors and their embrace of Mutually Assured Destruction if the balloon went up. Nothing concentrates the mind, and deters action, like the prospect of national annihilation. But that “reassuring” notion is out the window, replaced instead with a heavily-armed superpower confronting a nuclear pipsqueak, both led by rookie blowhards.
North Korea’s latest test was impressive. It was conducted quickly—suggesting it could launch such an attack with little time for reaction by possible targets—and in the middle of the night. The Hwasong-15, a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket larger than any previous North Korean weapon, suggests it can carry a bigger warhead, along with decoys designed to confuse missile defenses. Of course, having such a long-range missile doesn’t mean its nuclear warhead can survive the trip, or hit its target. But what U.S. president is willing to bet Los Angeles or Chicago that it can’t?
Defense officials know that Whack-a-Mole becomes a much different game when it’s Whack-a-Nuclear-Mole. North Korea has an estimated 250 mobile missile launchers, some nuclear-capable. That many launch sites, in addition to South Korea’s opposition to using military force, pretty much rules out a surprise U.S. attack on North Korea’s nuclear sites. So does the presence of thousands of U.S. civilians living in and around Seoul just south of the demilitarized zone, who could be killed in a North Korean non-nuclear artillery barrage. The U.S. military trains regularly for their evacuation, and no U.S. president is going to risk their lives to launch a surprise strike.
The chance of war is “increasing every day,” Army Lieut. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said Dec. 2, three days after the latest test. "Every time he conducts a missile launch, a nuclear test, he gets better.” North Korea doesn’t want its nuclear weapons so it can attack the U.S.; everyone knows that would be suicidal. It wants them to influence the U.S., which, like gravity, can’t be seen.
This is the New World Order, and we’d better get used to it. North Korea’s official ideology is “juche,” or self-reliance. Its ability to become a nuclear power despite a welter of international sanctions makes that crystal clear. Kim Jong-un sees history just as clearly—and maybe more so—than we do. He knows that Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya hedged their nuclear bets and ended up dead, along with their cultish coteries. Yet he also knows that the governments of India, Israel and Pakistan, all of whom became members of the atomic club on the sly, are alive and well.
North Korea’s success—and that’s exactly what it is—represents a stinging rebuke to Washington, South Korea and Japan, and doesn’t altogether please North Korea’s lukewarm allies in Beijing and Moscow. But they tend to like anything that sticks it into the eye of America, so, protests aside, they’re enjoying the U.S. discomfort. More critically, China is North Korea’s escape valve, providing just enough food and fuel to keep Kim’s regime from collapsing. So long as Beijing doesn’t choke Pyongyang to death with punishing sanctions, China keeps millions of North Koreans impoverished, but inside their own country. It also keeps thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops away from the Chinese border.
Beneath the waves of Kim’s and Trump’s rhetoric are whispers of negotiations. North Korea might be willing to pledge it will no longer peddle its nuclear skills outside its borders. But that’s a weak promise, given its history of broken pledges. The U.S. might agree to scale back its exercises with the South Korean military, or return to the negotiating table to negotiate a treat to end the Korean war (1953’s armistice merely paused the three-year-old conflict).
Meanwhile, tensions are rising on the peninsula, where the memories of the 3 million killed in the Korean War (including 34,000 Americans) remain seared into Korea’s national consciousness. From Dec. 4 to 8, the U.S. and South Korean air forces flew 230 warplanes (including B-1 bombers and F-15, F-16, F-18, F-22 and F-35 fighters) over the Korean peninsula, training for war. “The threat here on the peninsula is very real, and countering that threat needs to be in the forefront of our minds,” said U.S. Air Force Col. William Betts on the eve of the exercise. The training ensures “we have no regrets if we find ourselves executing contingency operations.”
The response from North Korea was in keeping with its tradition of high-volume screeds. “The large-scale nuclear war exercises conducted by the U.S. in succession are creating touch-and-go situation on the Korean peninsula,” the official state news agency said Dec. 6. “The remaining question now is: when will the war break out?”
Pieces are moving around the northeast Asian chessboard. China has been flying warplanes along new paths on both sides of the Korean peninsula. They’re seen inside the Pentagon as a joint “don’t tread on us” signal from Beijing and Pyongyang. Japan is eyeing long-range precision missiles that would allow it to take out North Korean missile sites on its own. Pentagon officials are chatting up their CHAMP missile—Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project—as a way of trying to turn North Korean missiles into duds by frying their electronics. And Russia has declared that North Korea is “ready for talks with Washington on the condition that it is recognized as a nuclear power.”
Trump has made clear that he’s in no mood for that. “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.,” he tweeted shortly before becoming president.
“It won’t happen!” he added.
It just did.