“…Fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Except the world has seen it. It’s seen the destruction of entire cities by fire, by nuclear bombs, and by artillery. In dealing with North Korea’s nuclear advancements, the President of the United States has now raised the style of rhetoric from the U.S. to an almost North Korean level. North Korea routinely threatens to reduce U.S. and South Korean cities to ash and rubble with “super-mighty” strikes. This type of language from the U.S. is not helpful in dealing with a regime that many describe as irrational.
While we explore ways to build the fire under the Kim regime, we need to provide opportunities to cool down the tensions so that all sides make the right choices. But where’s the ice?
To supply the ice, President Trump needs to truly understand several key concepts in order to chart a way forward that doesn’t result in a war nobody truly wants.
First, North Korea is not an irrational actor.
The Kim regime is rational, as it seeks survival above all else. It firmly believes that acting provocatively and dangerously is its best defense. It believes in escalation to de-escalate. It believes that by appearing dangerous and unpredictable, that this will discourage attempts at regime change by its enemies.
North Korea has every reason to want nuclear weapons, and these reasons currently far outweigh the benefits of not having them. We must look at other situations where countries have given up their leverage. Ukraine transferred its nuclear weapons back to Russia after the end of the Cold War; it has since been invaded by Russia. Libya gave up its nuclear aspirations, and a few years later, the regime was gone. Iraq’s nuclear hopes were dashed by Israel, and Saddam is no-more. North Korea has every reason to believe that giving up its nuclear program will lead to regime change. Because of this, threatening to end the regime is not helpful.
A military threat alone is not enough to encourage North Korea to end its nuclear program. It does not provide North Korea an off-ramp to de-escalation, nor does it provide a means for the regime to save face in the eyes of its population. For a regime that relies on its internal legitimacy as a means of survival, it must be able to declare victory and ensure its continued survival at home. A military threat alone provides North Korea with even more justification to pursue the expansion of its nuclear deterrent.
Second, North Korea does not see the U.S. as a credible negotiator. It needs to see an option which it trusts is inviolable and provides it with a means of survival.
If North Korea is to see the U.S. as diplomatically credible, it may be dependent on the success of the Iran Deal, a deal which President Trump has declared he wishes to see end. By threatening to end the deal, or force Iran into a situation where the deal is no longer tenable, President Trump is demonstrating to North Korea that the U.S. is not a reliable partner when it comes to negotiating a diplomatic agreement to end a nuclear program. The previous nuclear deal made under the Clinton Administration certainly saw North Korean transgressions, but America’s failure to completely uphold its end of the bargain contributed to its collapse. What reason does this give North Korea to denuclearize?
Kim must also understand that the alternative to negotiation and denuclearization is costly. If President Trump is going to make serious statements, they need to be backed up by cautious but deliberate action to encourage North Korea’s compliance. The credible threat of force is a useful tool in backing up diplomacy, but it should not be made in response to mere rhetoric.
Third, North Korea will not use its nukes against an enemy target unless it feels its survival is at stake.
If we want to prevent the use of a North Korean nuclear weapon, we must prevent the outbreak of a new Korean War. North Korea knows that using this weapon prior to the outbreak of war would result in invasion of its territory and the end of the regime, which it seeks to avoid. But if a full war starts, North Korea will undoubtedly use its nuclear weapons in a last-ditch effort to make the war too costly for the U.S. and South Korea. What else would Kim have to lose at that point?