The ongoing North Korea drama continues apace, and Trump’s apocalyptic threats and Kim’s newfound ability to strike the continental United States with nuclear weapons suggest that the standoff on the peninsula is morphing into something portentous. Indeed, the rapidity with which Kim has expanded his arsenal and climbed up the escalation ladder has forced even Moon Jae-in, the dovish President of South Korea, to reconsider his opposition to the American deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. This is certainly not the first time that tensions on the peninsula have risen, but the leadership styles of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump make the risk of military miscalculation far more likely. As CNAS’s Patrick Cronin aptly summarized, “The game has not changed so much as it has intensified.”
Unfortunately, there are no obvious solutions to the North Korea problem. A targeted strike on Kim’s nuclear forces would be just as likely to fail as to succeed simply due to the difficulty of locating and destroying every weapons system. And, as Dr. Cronin points out in another article, these kinds of strikes could easily escalate into a full-blown war because “Kim… would likely see any attack as the first salvo of an invasion force designed to terminate his regime.” Of course, the U.S. could simply initiate a full-scale invasion from the outset, but that approach would also risk creating more problems than it would solve. Estimates regarding the potential number of casualties caused by a second Korean War vary, but North Korea’s extensive artillery forces, chemical weapons stockpiles and nuclear-armed missiles guarantee that hundreds of thousands would die. Intervention would risk the destruction of Seoul (pop. 10 million), severe damage to Japanese cities including Tokyo (pop. 36 million) and attacks on U.S. garrisons throughout the region. What is perhaps most worrying, though, is the potential for a Korean conflict to draw in China on the side of North Korea. This would pit China and the United States – the world’s two most powerful countries – against each other, thus raising the possibility of conflict escalation throughout all of East Asia.
Therefore, war should obviously be avoided. For despite what chickenhawks in the U.S. frequently assert, there is simply nothing to be gained from pushing Kim to the brink of war. But what should the United States do? First, it’s important to recognize that for all of his bellicose pomposity, Kim is not suicidal. Consequently, the risk of a North Korean “bolt from the blue” is extremely low. Instead, the threat of war lies mainly in the potential for misperceptions and miscalculation. What one side might view as nothing more than a proportional retaliation for a perceived slight could be perceived by the other as a prelude to war. And thus actions taken to reinforce deterrence and improve one side’s credibility could inadvertently lead to full-scale military conflict. This means that instead of forcing North Korea into a corner, the United States should seek to negotiate with the regime and be willing to grant concessions that ameliorate the North’s immediate security concerns. This would not eliminate Kim’s nuclear arsenal, but it would encourage the Kim regime to moderate its behavior lest it lose its newfound privileges. A recent article by David Lai and Alyssa Blair makes a similar argument by calling for a normalization of relations. While their suggestion is fairly extreme and likely overly ambitious, a strategy in the same vein would likely yield significant results. This approach should be paired with an increased deployment of missile defense batteries in the region and further support for South Korean conventional forces in order to bolster regional deterrence and combat the perception of decoupling (the idea that the U.S. would be unwilling to trade D.C. for Seoul).
This strategy is, of course, not without risks (especially on the domestic front). Many would view this approach as rewarding North Korea’s flagrant violations of international law and international norms, and this would entail severe electoral risks for any President that would attempt it. But Donald Trump is a unique individual who pitched himself as a new kind of politician unencumbered by the old and tired paradigms of the past. Stabilizing the Korean Peninsula would represent a major policy victory for him, and his affiliation with the more hawkish Republican Party would grant him greater leeway to pursue a less aggressive foreign policy (much like Nixon in China). Furthermore, this strategy would not simply be a concession to Kim. Instead, it would be a pragmatic recognition that the current situation on the peninsula is untenable for both sides. And any sense of abandonment on the part of Japan and South Korea would be mitigated by the increased military support that accompanied the easing of diplomatic relations with the Kim regime.
As every analyst and pundit is quick to point out, there are no easy answers to the “Korean problem.” What is abundantly obvious, however, is that there are no good military options available to U.S. policymakers. For this reason, an attempt at fundamentally altering America’s relationship with North Korea is worthwhile. Granting any kind of concession to such a repugnant regime is sickening, but it might be the only way to change the game in a way that is productive in the long-run. In an enduring rivalry like this, someone needs to make the first move toward peace. And if previous attempts at reconciliation are any example (Nixon in China, Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the Camp David Accords, Columbia and the FARC, etc.), there is potentially a lot to be gained by dialing back the pressure on Kim and his cronies.