Let’s get the problem of perception out of the way, When a situation has reached peak hysteria, opinion pieces that say “calm down”, and present solid arguments for why such is a wise decision, are met with the critique that such essays are a defense mechanism against how bad the situation is and could still get. The idea that this nuclear brinksmanship between North Korea and the United States could be a years long “I’m definitely going to leave Facebook” conundrum is an, on its face, asinine and stupid thought. When someone implies that North Korea and the United States are led by, on their face, bombastic lunatics with fingers just inches above their respective nuclear buttons, one risks being called a leftist or “libtard” in today’s advanced vernacular. These same people are, let’s just say “unlikely” to make an argument for Trump’s calm, rational demeanor and Churchillian command of the English language. It is cliché to note that nuclear war would be the end of North Korea and potentially cripple the US critical infrastructure, and has been repeated to the point where such is now the baseline hypothetical, feeding into the idea that nuclear war is inevitable and perhaps very much imminent. So let us reiterate the points that have been made as to why war is unlikely
First, the obvious: North Korea would lose. Perhaps a victory from the grave is enough for Kim-Jong Un. If this is the case, then we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the “what ifs” and adapt to the new normal of “this’ll happen soon” as the South Koreans have. Assuming that wounding the United States is not worth the considerable life this young tyrant lives, (keep in mind he is at the oldest only 35), then what else is there for a physical war? The promise of Mutually Assured Destruction then becomes an impenetrable barrier to a nuclear war.
Second, the absurd: Spell out the logic of current US policy. If you don’t shut down your nuclear program, we will bomb you.
It is from this non-threatening platform we shall make many diplomatic inroads. Consisting mainly of an interminable string of “Strongest UN sanctions ev-ar”.
Hard as it may be to believe, the people who don’t want war are doing themselves no favors telling a hostile state to calm down by pointing a gun at it. The United States policy has failed in it’s decades long quest to prevent NoKo’s development of nuclear weapons and there is no way to backtrack gracefully from this failure. Yes, North Korea could and probably would perceive the changing of the platform as a concession; the tiny North Korea becoming such a force that the world superpower is forced to negotiate with it. Yet this would go a considerable way towards reducing the tensions and gives the United States a bit of political cover. Barring, as we discussed, that using nuclear weapons in any context would result in its destruction, North Korea stands to lose what political clout the nuclear bomb affords it in the once-in-a-lifetime chance it survives nuclear war with the entire western world. There does not appear to be any physical harm, and there is negligible political harm in altering a platform from something that has failed and is irrevocably a disaster into something that adapts more acceptably to the situation we are in as opposed to the one we want to be in but can never again reach. Seriously think about it. What’s going to happen? The North Koreans tell their people that they are going to be accepted by the United States? What’s new?
Third, the regional stalemate: Even if we do the unthinkable and turn our attention away from the United States towards North Korea’s other half, we see that the situation doesn’t move much either. Consider the scenarios we already have
- The US strikes first and starts a nuclear exchange with North Korea
- North Korea strikes first and starts a nuclear exchange with the US
If the US/NK situation existed in a vacuum, it would definitely go nowhere. While it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s still not likely to move. So, what of our ally South Korea. We then find ourselves in a moral problem similar to Vietnam. Roll the dice on South Korea winning a catastrophic war against North Korea but stay away from the conflict, or join the war on SoKo’s side, at which point the nuclear exchange only becomes a question of “who started it”. To make advancements in South Korea, Kim-Jong needs to be confident that the United States will not intervene and thus risk a nuclear attack on its soil. Again however, if he’s wrong, he’s gone.
The above scenarios ignore Russia and China’s reasons for wishing against a war on the Korean Peninsula.
All this to say, ten years ago, Iran was the nation that was threatening to blow us up and we were threatening to blow it up. Believe it or not, there are still talks on Iran’s nuclear program going on. We’ll close on Kim Jong himself, and the debate over whether or not he is a rational or irrational actor in this show. If he were irrational, he would take the slightest provocation and blow up everything he could before disappearing into history. He has been in power for 6 years, consolidated his power by killing off only what he sees as domestic threats to his rule and brought the entire Western world to a near standstill several times, having won out in negotiations dating back to at least the Clinton handover of nuclear material. It is very easy to argue the North Korean leader is not irrational.
The obvious result from this is that he is very rational indeed. He knows any conflict would be the end of his regime, if not his country (which is about the size of Ohio). So now the question is how much can he get out of this now decades-long threat game. To summarize: Russia doesn’t want war because the results would be globally catastrophic. China doesn’t want North Korean refugees slinking into its nation and North Korea doesn’t want to die.
It is with these in mind that one makes an argument that isn’t some defense mechanism against how bad the situation looks, but can make an argument that the situation is at least functionally positive, and if the US can admit that it did not prevent and cannot stop the development of North Korean nuclear weapons, the situation may achieve some form of peacefulness.