When it comes to North Korea, there are no good options. The safest track is to accept the regime’s nuclear ambitions.
That is not to say the United States should refrain from using its economic clout to impose sanctions on the North, as it has done repeatedly in the past. Nor should the U.S. allow Russian and Chinese companies who do business with the DPRK — and thereby fuel the country’s technological progress — to continue without reprimand.
Indeed, the Trump administration has done both, as it should. Yet, Kim Jong-Un and his scientists march on. Sanctions cannot prevent North Korea from constructing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), nor can they tame the country’s militaristic might. A pre-emptive strike, or military invasion, would be counterproductive; such a move would result in hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Seoul, South Korea, the U.S.-allied metropolis less than an hour from the North’s border. And that’s nothing to say of the many American soldiers who’d undoubtedly find themselves in mortal peril, as well.
Calming fears of nuclear war on the peninsula, or elsewhere, can only now be accomplished through open diplomacy. The U.S. should lead the way, opening the process for talks. This requires taking any demand of nuclear disarmament off the table — for now.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should meet his counterpart in Pyongyang without stringent, and unlikely, prior conditions. As broad consensus is necessary for a truly binding agreement, talks should proceed with all major powers in the region: China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, the United States and North Korea. China and Russia, and their economic bonds with the North, will be crucial in ensuring North Korea upholds its end of the bargain. South Korea and Japan stand the most to lose if a deal goes wrong, hence the moral necessity of their participation. The U.S., for fortune or shame, holds the lofty mantel of international peacekeeper; the Americans need to lead the summit, and do so with an open hand.
North Korea’s leadership may be depraved, but they are certainly rational; they want to retain control over their despotic state. Launching nuclear weapons at the world’s foremost superpower is a poor way to achieve that goal. This understanding will ground enhanced communication with the DPRK.
Weapons of nuclear might may embolden the country’s usual mischief. North Korea could increase interference in its neighbors’ affairs, attacking South Korean and Japanese ships on a whim, beneath the brim of a nuclear umbrella. A stronger fear is a North Korean offensive charge to the South, seeking to reunify the peninsula. These misdeeds should be the red line drawn in peace talks — not nuclear testing.
If our country sits with theirs, this can be done. Even if the North is unwilling to negotiate on these terms, however, we will have lost nothing. Perhaps we will have fostered a sense of good will with the Chinese and Russian governments.
The U.S. should never endorse the tyranny’s abhorred treatment of its own people, but we would not need to sacrifice our liberal democratic values to fashion a limited militaristic accord. The alternative is to risk a miscalculation — an escalation of tensions from simple misunderstanding. That pushes the Pacific Rim closer to war. And President Donald Trump, our erratic, late-night tweeting commander in chief, is surely no help.
Acceptance of a nuclearized North Korea is not ideal, especially with the country’s record of incendiary statements on bathing American cities in seas of fire. But it’s the best option left.
— Mark Bowden, for The Atlantic
— Warrick, Nakashima and Fifielf, for The Washington Post