For the American public, media, and a certain someone in the West Wing, the knowledge that North Korea will soon have ICBMs capable of targeting American cities is cause for panic. Each test launch and every tremor coming from North Korea leads to a flurry of angrily worded tweets and posturing from President Trump, which has seemingly escalated the “North Korea problem” to a “North Korea Crisis”. Media coverage has also increased the level of anxiety and worry, where terms like “brinkmanship” and “nuclear exchange” have returned to cable news from their Cold War linguistic storage units. But while North Korea’s improvements in its nuclear capability are cause for concern, especially for policy planners in the U.S. national security community, it should not be considered as the urgent life-or-death matter that Trump, North Korea’s propaganda machine, and the U.S. media have made it out to be.
First, both State Secretary Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis, within 24 hours of Trump’s volatile tweets on Sept 21-22, came out with statements to lower the temperature of the rhetoric and leave an avenue for traditional diplomacy. There are fairly transparent differences within the Trump White House on how to approach the evolving calculus of power and threat in East Asia, and any rash emotion on the part of a blustering Trump will undoubtedly be tempered by the palaver of other internal actors.
For that matter, we should expect similar rationality from Pyongyang, whatever the impressions of Kim Jong-Un as an unhinged madman might be. Any escalation actually leading to a nuclear launch would be catastrophic for the North Korean regime. Their nuclear capability is truly a defensive tool of last resort and the threat to their very survival would have to imminent and dire before it becomes seriously considered for use.
It is also important to note that these new developments should not be surprises. Americans have lived with North Korea’s nuclear weapon capability for at least the past ten years, and it has long been expected by the U.S. intelligence community that it would be around this time when their nuclear program would expand to include viable ICBMs. This is not to say that the United States should not worry about nuclear proliferation, but merely to explain that future decisions should not be made out of a desperate attempt to roll back the clock. North Korea is no longer a potential nuclear proliferator–it is an equal player in the game of Mutually Assured Destruction and should be treated with the appropriate caution.
During the 1990s, it made sense for the United States to attempt to stop North Korea obtaining nuclear capability, if only to demonstrate to the world that acquiring WMDs was not a fail-safe way to ensure one’s national security against foreign intervention. But now the United States has already failed in that respect, and it will be up to future administrations to develop effective means of preventing nuclear proliferation in any more countries.
With North Korea, however, the United States already has decades of experience of dealing with a nuclear capable, hostile state. The Cold War was not a gentle affair and led to more than one close-encounters, but nukes were never used. The spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction and deterrence prevented even the most hotheaded of Soviet and American policy-makers from seriously considering a nuclear option.
It’s time for the United States to step back into a Cold War mentality with its relations with North Korea. This will not be an easy task. It will require preemptive communication and greater collaboration with Chinese and Russian diplomats to resume easier avenues for direct negotiations. This in turn will require Secretary Tillerson to finally fill the long-vacant high and mid-high level positions in the State Department, which will be necessary to truly improve conversation across the Pacific. It may require the permanent stationing of an American envoy in Pyongyang to assure North Korea’s leadership of American intentions, and even the removal of THAAD anti-missile defenses from South Korea. This quasi-normalization of relations may be a hard pill for the Trump administration to swallow, but would enormously reduce the risks of accidents in the future and remove the prideful indulgence of brinkmanship behavior from the negotiating table. And if achieving a means of steady peace and diplomacy is not enough of a motivator, such a solution would also work to the favor of both the Trump presidency and Kim Jong-Un. Kim Jong-Un can say to his government and his people that he has secured North Korean security for the next thousand years, and President Trump can say he solved a foreign policy crisis in a peaceful way and successfully fended off those who would threaten the American homeland.
The United States needs to learn to coexist with a nuclear North Korea. Every day, Americans live with the potential, if far-flung, of Russian or Chinese ICBMs destroying the East Coast, but we have learned to accept that reality. The mutual understanding that any hostile state above all else wants to save itself from destruction is a marvelous, if uncomfortable, avenue for peaceful diplomacy. The solution for the future might very well lie in the past, and how the United States learned to trust deterrence theory and accept the bomb.
Syrus Jin ’19 studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.