Will you risk Los Angeles to deter North Korea?
Every discussion of North Korea ought to begin with a short reminder. In the last thirty years, policy towards North Korea has been a resounding failure. American policy specifically, but also the policies of other countries dissatisfied about the prospect of a rogue and incomprehensible regime armed with nuclear warheads.
It was a failure that rests on two main pillars. There was a lack of urgency – the crisis with North Korea never reached a point that compelled the U.S. to use its much superior force, and make the necessary sacrifices, to stop this country’s rush to arm itself. There was also the belief in the power of diplomacy – time and again American leaders and diplomats fooled themselves into thinking that North Korea is a problem they can negotiate away.
Obviously, they could not. Writing earlier this week, David Ignatius described American objectives as follows: “Washington’s diplomatic goal, although it hasn’t been stated publicly this way, is to encourage China to interpose itself between the United States and North Korea and organize negotiations to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. threat is that if China doesn’t help the United States find such a diplomatic settlement, America will pursue its own solution – by military means if necessary”.
This of course sounds reasonable, except for the fact that this has been Washington’s diplomatic goal for three decades, to no avail. It did not succeed with either Democratic presidents, like Clinton, who thought (or pretended to think) that his understanding with North Korea will hold, or with Republican presidents, like Bush, who thought that mixing in a more aggressive approach would deter the leaders of North Korea. Successive administrations failed to achieve their objective, and now it might be too late. North Korea achieved its own objective, of having the ability to shoot a nuclear armed missile far enough to reach the United States. The bizarre, seemingly irrational, misunderstood, ridiculed, clownish leaders of North Korea proved more cunning and determined than the empire foe.
Defending past presidents, we should admit that North Korea was never an easy problem to solve. It is even more complicated today, as Reva Goujon of Stratfor explained in a long article about the U.S.’ looming foreign policy crisis. “In trying to forgo military action”, he wrote, “the United States will be forced to rely on China’s and Russia’s cooperation in sanctions or covert action intended to destabilize the North Korean government and thwart its nuclear ambitions. Yet even as Washington pursues this policy out of diplomatic necessity, it knows it is unlikely to bear fruit. Because as much as they dislike the idea of a nuclear North Korea on their doorstep, China and Russia do not want to face the broader repercussions of an unstable Korean Peninsula or open the door to a bigger U.S. military footprint in the region”.
There are lessons to be learned from this developing situation, and priorities to be set. The main lesson – relevant to Israel no less than it is to the US – is that diplomacy and international pressure cannot prevent determined countries from getting beyond the point of no return. What North Korea did Iran can also do. What Iran can do, other countries in the Middle East can do. The only obstacle standing between countries and nuclear weapons is their own risk assessment – how much they need the weapons, and what price they are willing to pay to get it. If, like North Korea, they come to the conclusion that their survival depends on getting the weapons, North Korea proves the world is not competent, unified and determined enough to prevent this from happening.
What then should be done now? Prioritization is key. And telling North Korea that it will be obliterated if it launches a nuclear attack on the US is not a priority. The leaders of Korea seem wise enough to understand this on their own – and don’t seem to have any inclination to attack the U.S. Like all other countries who have nuclear weapons, they need this measure as a deterrent against attacks, not as a mean with which to initiate war.
Disarming the North is a desirable goal, but it does not seem to be feasible at this time. The current crisis is not “analogous to the Cuban missile crisis,” as one of President Trump’s advisors said, because the North, unlike the USSR, is no superpower battling against America. Thus, disarming Korea is not the most urgent goal now. A more urgent goal is to draw the red lines for which the world (that is, the U.S.) will be going to war against Korea.
On principle, these red lines are not complicated to draw:
North Korea cannot use its newly acquired capabilities to attack its neighbors, or blackmail them.
North Korea cannot become a proliferator of nuclear weapons.
In practice these red lines invite North Korean provocation, and involve risks of miscalculation. What if the U.S. topples an airplane carrying nuclear scientists from Pyongyang to Syria? Will the Koreans respond in taking down an American military base? And how will the US respond to such action? Will it go as far as risking a nuclear attack on Los Angeles to prevent Syria from getting the knowhow and material to build nuclear weapons?
I have no answer to such a question, but there is one thing I do know. The leaders of North Korea must believe that there is such possibility – that the US is willing to take huge risks to prevent Korea from crossing these two red lines. That is where the bold language and infamous temper of Donald Trump could be useful. As scary as this sounds, the leaders of Korea must believe that the leader of the U.S. is bold and aggressive enough to ignite a nuclear war. Otherwise, they will eventually call America’s bluff as they have been doing for the last thirty years. And they will cross yet another point of no return.