Victor Davis Hanson believes that the United States is “gaining the upper hand” in the ongoing standoff on the Korean peninsula. I hope, for everyone’s sake, that he is right.
Unfortunately, given the nature of the North Korean regime (as well as its history), I am skeptical. In the intelligence community, there is a simple calculation for a threat assessment: capabilities + intentions = threat. The more capable that North Korea becomes with nuclear weapons, the more its most aggressive tendencies—also known as its intentions—grow hostile.
Hanson argues that, as America’s economy strengthens, its stature in the world returns to previous high levels, giving it leverage once again on the world stage. Also, Hanson believes, that the United States has the ability to enforce devastating economic sanctions against North Korea that will erode their “already anemic” economy. Therefore, he says, “Time […] may be on the American side.”
Yet, it is precisely time that we do not have.
The CIA believes that the North Koreans are roughly “a few months away” from being in possession of a fully functional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). A reliable ICBM is all that stands between North Korea and a fully functional nuclear arsenal. Now, it is true that, even if the North Koreans do achieve successful ICBM capabilities, it will take upwards of 18 months before they can mass-produce enough of them to be a real threat to the United States. But, basically, once North Korea overcomes this final hurdle for their nuclear weapons program, the point of no return will have been reached.
And, once that threshold is breached, North Korea will get increasingly belligerent, believing that they have the advantage of being shielded by a robust (and growing) nuclear arsenal. Miscalculations and territorial aggrandizement that leads to conflict will likely ensue.
Fact is, North Korea will not be cowed by American threats. After all, they’ve been living under the prospect of war with the United States and South Korea for decades and have yet to be deterred. The Kim regime is also unmoved by U.S.-backed economic sanctions (because they know that China and/or Russia will buttress their economy in times of crisis). Moreover, let us not forget that the West has maintained sanctions on North Korea for years and it has barely even slowed North Korea’s drive to The Bomb.
In addition, Kim Jong-un understands that South Korea has little stomach even to entertain the thought of another war on the peninsula, and that the Japanese will need time to get their own military capabilities in order. Meanwhile, the United States is hesitant fully to exercise its will, out of concern for having to “go it alone” again as it did in Iraq; out of fear of the economic blowback in the event of a war; and because the Americans cannot be sure how either the Chinese or Russians would respond.
And what of the intentions of North Korea? Could the leadership in Pyongyang truly be suicidal?
Basically, the answer to that question is “Yes.” But this is partly because Kim Jong-un doesn’t believe that President Trump is serious about his threats and therefore, doesn’t view his own actions as suicidal. It is also because North Korea is a chaos state and its elite have their own way of doing things. Plus, as Victor D. Cha analyzes in his phenomenal 2012 book on North Korea, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Present, the Kim regime’s legitimacy in North Korea is built solely upon the promise of returning South Korea to Pyongyang’s control.
While it is easy for skeptical observers to cast doubt upon the notion of Kim Jong-un being willing to risk his regime’s destruction at the hands of the United States, he—and his father before him—assessed that nuclear arms are the key to the Kim regime’s survival. The presence of nuclear arms will keep the United States and its allies back, or so the North reasons.
Unfortunately, though, there is the added complication of North Korea’s juche ideology. Juche is a strange polyglot mixture of Marxism, Stalinist-type cult of personality, extreme nationalism, rabid militarism, and a perverse sentimentality (juche wants to return North Korea to a blinkered ideal of former greatness). It is North Korea’s state religion and Kim Jong-un is its deity. The juche ideology was de-emphasized during the reign of Kim Jong-il. However, upon his son’s ascension to power in North Korea (following the former’s death in 2012), the younger Kim reasserted the primacy of juche ideology in North Korea. Underpinning this belief system is the mad dash for nuclear arms.
For Kim, the possession of nuclear arms is a deterrent that would prevent the United States from trying to remove his regime from power. However, the nuclear arsenal would also allow for Kim Jong-un to fulfill his family’s raison d’etre of forcibly reuniting the two Koreas. With nuclear arms, young Kim could potentially enact historical revenge upon the Japanese as well. More frighteningly, thanks to the long-range distances that an ICBM can travel, the North Koreans could potentially use nuclear weapons to strike at the United States. If this were to occur, yes, the United States would destroy Kim Jong-un’s regime. Unfortunately, the costs would be great.
What’s more, judging from the incredible body of Victor Davis Hanson’s work, he fully understands that dictators are unlikely to act either responsibly or reasonably. And, as the work of Thucydides suggests, human beings are just as likely to war for irrational reasons, such as honor, ambition, pride, fear, etc. as they are for rational reasons (i.e. for resources or wealth). Relying on things like Donald Trump’s modestly rising poll numbers, or that Kim Jong-un may simply see reason, will not replace a well-reasoned and solid defense strategy. Although, Hanson is correct when he chides Pentagon war planners for contemplating a “bloody nose” strike, in the event North Korea achieves its nuclear ambitions.
No show of force will slow the North down. A limited strike like the one Pentagon war planners reportedly prefer to use in North Korea would presage a bloodier, wider response from Pyongyang. In this case, unfortunately, if denuclearization is our North Korea policy—and it is—then a preemptive, decapitation strike (e.g., regime change) against Pyongyang is the only thing that will end this conflict with finality.
While readers might be inclined to favor a change in U.S. policy toward North Korea, it is unlikely that American policymakers (or President Trump) would countenance such a move, as it would signal a lack of resolve on America’s part, and call into question every single alliance that the United States currently has. It also might not prevent North Korea from acquiring and using nuclear arms.
As I’ve assessed in other works, in roughly 18 months, we are likely to be at war with North Korea—either because we chose to preempt them, or because the North attacked us. Time is not on America’s side. Hanson believes a preemptive attack on North Korea would be “an act of desperation, not confidence.” If the North gets a fully functional nuclear arsenal, desperate times is precisely what the world will face, and the action, therefore, would be desperate, yet necessary.
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