Thinking through the North Korea crisis

Andy Schmookler

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about an examination of the North Korea crisis.

The long-running problem with North Korea is coming to a head – either very soon, or in the not-too-distant future. What follows is my attempt at a non-political, non-partisan explication of the key questions.

Two questions present themselves from the outset: 1) What is the best way for the United States to deal with the problem of North Korea and the nuclear threat it poses? And 2) Is President Trump’s present approach a good way to achieve the desired outcome?

I don’t claim to know the answer to either question, which is why my presentation of the issues here has no agenda – no partisan agenda – other than to seek to provide clarity about the questions that need to be asked in order to arrive at sound policy.

I’m imagining walking into a room of experts in all the different areas relevant to evaluating the North Korean situation, e.g. experts on the various military issues, on the North Korean regime, on the interests and behavior of the Chinese government, on the history of nuclear deterrence.

(I have some experience conducting such discussions back in the 1980s when I worked in national security circles.)

Alternative solutions

To frame the discussion, I might begin this way:

“For a quarter century, American presidents have sought to prevent North Korea from gaining the ability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, and to prevent this without resorting to war. The North Korean regime has not disappeared, as American policy-makers have hoped. Now, we are quickly approaching the North Koreans’ possessing that dreaded capability of attacking not only our allies in the region, but even the American mainland with nuclear weapons.

“Two questions: Is there any alternative solution besides either 1) accepting that North Korea will have that capability or 2) launching a war to destroy that threat? And if there is no such alternative solution, which of those two is better – or least bad – for serving the full range of American national interests?”

Someone doubtless will suggest that there are alternatives: 1) Perhaps we can intimidate the North Koreans into relinquishing their nuclear-strike capability. 2) Perhaps we can induce the Chinese to pressure the North Koreans into backing down.

About the idea of intimidating the North Koreans, an intelligence analyst said the other day on TV: “The North Koreans have proven they’re not very good at being intimidated.” So I would ask the experts:

“Given that the North Koreans, over the years, have responded to every threat by becoming even more bellicose, and not by moderating their posture, what reason do we have to believe that any threat we might pose would get them to back down?”

Maybe there would be an answer. But I cannot now see a case for the possibility of resolving the crisis by American intimidation of the North Korean regime.

Does President Trump believe he can intimidate the North Koreans? Is that why, in quick succession, he has sent cruise missiles into Syria, dropped our biggest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan – both of which might be intended as warnings directed at the Korean crisis – and, more directly, sent a naval armada to the seas around Korea?

Or perhaps, as someone in the room is likely to suggest, all that saber-rattling was not directed at North Korea, but at China.

China has by far the most leverage over North Korea. They’ve been reluctant to use it because, it is said, and that the Chinese have been reluctant to use it, it is said, because they don’t want to have to deal with the chaos that would result if the North Korean regime collapsed. But perhaps — as a means to get them to lean harder on the North Koreans –Trump is raising the specter of a war that would create even worse chaos.

I’d ask the expert on China: Is there reason to hope that the Chinese could provide a scenario besides those two quite unattractive options described above?

> Read the second part of this series on Wednesday.

In the 1980s, Dr. Andy Schmookler was tasked with distilling the views of foreign policy experts at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs (CSIS) in Washington, and interviewed experts for a project at the Public Agenda Foundation about how to find security in an age of nuclear weapons. In the 1990s, he was hired by the U.S. Army to help think through some particular issues concerning weapons of mass destruction. He is also the author of “The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.”