If President Trump could finally do something about North Korea, a persistent annoyance to the United States for the last few decades, he might accrue a significant accomplishment, deliver his voters’ expectations, and build the foundation for a possibly positive legacy.
Alas, an under-developed Communist nation with an economy the size of that of Birmingham, Alabama, has managed to outsmart the man at the helm of the most powerful military in the world.
Last April, the North Korean regime was still struggling to successfully test-launch missiles into the sea. It was doubtful the regime could strike any target outside the Western Pacific Rim. At that time, I advocated for war with the Kim regime on both moral and strategic grounds — to “quash the menace in its infancy” before the North Korean arsenal could catch up.
In the meantime, however, North Korean missile technology has become more impressive. It appears as though North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) could strike not only Guam and Alaska but the Western contiguous states as well. Worse yet, the North Koreans have discovered a way to miniaturize nuclear warheads and mount them onto these ICBMs. For the first time, North Korea stands unquestionably capable of striking the United States with a nuclear weapon.
And it happened on Trump’s watch.
Trump’s legacy, which already has a number of black marks, could soon bear one of the most unfortunate: “Allowed North Korea to become a nuclear rival in earnest.”
Welcome to Cold War II. All the rules from the first Cold War now apply. Say hello again to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
Let me be clear about one thing: I am glad that Trump did not preemptively nuke the entire country of North Korea into oblivion back in April. North Korea civilians are as worthy of life as nationals of any country. Such devastating action is not necessary and would deservedly face condemnation from the international community and lower Trump’s historical ranking as a president.
In addition, it is impossible to talk seriously about North Korea today without discussing China. While China has recently been a more reluctant ally of North Korea, U.S. aggression against North Korea could lead to a hot conflict with nuclear-equipped China, whose military power easily dwarfs that of North Korea.
However, back in April, the U.S. still had leverage to push for a denuclearized Korea, if not complete regime change. Before entering the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush threatened military action if Saddam Hussein did not end the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Likewise, the U.S. could have threatened North Korea to dismantle their nuclear program or else the U.S. would bomb their R&D and artillery facilities without fear of nuclear retaliation. Indeed, China and the United States were involved in negotiations regarding North Korea over the summer.
One wonders if we were willing enough then to negotiate with China over North Korea. In my view, North Korea’s growing threat to its own people, the United States, and the world would justify significant concessions to China in exchange for their help in pressuring North Korea. Trump promised to renegotiate trade deals with China, but that option is now off the table now that China has new leverage.
Much like climate change, U.S. leadership has waited too long to find the right solution, and the consequences are soon to follow. Now that North Korea can retaliate against the U.S. with intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Kim regime is less vulnerable than ever.