by Thomas L. Friedman · August 10, 2017
News about North Korea’s weapons program was shown on a monitor in Tokyo on Thursday. Toru Hanai/Reuters
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Americans who are concerned about the situation in North Korea “should sleep well at night.” Of course! Donald Trump and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un — neither of whom has any aides who can stand up to them — are trading fire and brimstone threats with their fingers cocked on nuclear weapons. What could possibly keep a person up at night? Surely Tillerson jests or is high on Ambien.
Have we already become so inured to the madness of the Trump administration that we have simply forgotten over these six months what it would be like if America had a real president to manage this crisis — not the historically ignorant, erratic, petulant boy king we’re stuck with?
A serious president wouldn’t be leveling unscripted threats at North Korea — uncoordinated with his secretaries of state and defense and unconnected to any larger strategy — or sanction a few no-account Chinese entities, desperately seek negotiations on terms sure to fail and threaten a war that would be catastrophic politically, militarily and morally.
A serious president would seize the diplomatic initiative with a strategy that serves our interests, protects our stakes in the Asia-Pacific theater, solidifies and keeps faith with our allies, doesn’t harm American-Chinese relations but also doesn’t discard 70 years of post-World War II American leadership in that region waiting for China to rescue us.
A serious president would follow the rough outline laid out by one of America’s most seasoned Asia-China hands, Jeffrey Bader, which is summarized in a smart paper on Brookings.edu titled “Why Deterring and Containing North Korea Is Our Least Bad Option.”
Bader, who has served multiple administrations in diplomatic and policy jobs related to China and is now a private consultant, begins by asking the best question any American strategist could ask when thinking about how to deter a nuclear-armed foe: What would George Kennan do?
Kennan was the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union, which had tens of thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at us for roughly half a century.
Kennan, argues Bader, would grasp that “while some situations may be unacceptable, they do not lend themselves to short-term fixes. The North Korean challenge is one of them.”
As Kennan understood with the Soviet Union, added Bader, when faced “with a foe against whom we could not reasonably afford to contemplate an offensive war aimed at regime change — and who viewed its survival as dependent on hostility to the United States,” the only rational approach is patient “containment, deterrence and pressure.” That is especially true when you recognize that America is vastly stronger than North Korea and the winds of history are all on our side.
Is North Korea different from the Soviet Union? Of course. Is anyone comfortable with the fact that North Korea is building nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit the United States? Of course not. But the point is: We’ve lived with such threats before, and there is simply no reason to believe that the deterrent capabilities we’ve had in place to prevent North Korea from attacking South Korea and American forces there since the end of the Korean War will not continue to work. North Korea’s ruling Kim family is homicidal, but it has not survived for three generations by being suicidal. And firing a nuclear missile at us would be suicide.
What we should be doing is actually laughing at their missile tests — telling them we think they’re pathetic — while maintaining our deterrence, steadily improving and deploying our antiballistic missile capabilities to defend the United States homeland, as well as American forces in the region and our Japanese and South Korean allies. We should also bombard North Korea’s people with information on how poor they are compared with the rest of the world — while generating ever tighter economic sanctions and embargoes so the North Korean regime sees that its choice is very simple: It can have either nuclear weapons or endless poverty that will eventually sap its strength from within.
I repeat, time is on our side. As Bader notes, North Korea is “a foe with one strength and many profound and eventually fatal weaknesses.” Let’s treat it that way: Deter its strength and exacerbate its weaknesses by being smart, not hysterical.
How? The best place to start is by putting on the table a clear, formal peace proposal so the world — especially South Korea and China — see that America is not the problem. The more the whole world sees us as the solution and not as a country led by someone just as crazy, irrational and unstable as North Korea, the more leverage we will have.
What should the American proposal say? It should tell the North Koreans, says Bader, that in return for their complete denuclearization and dismantling of their missile program, we would establish full diplomatic relations; end the economic embargo and sanctions; and provide economic assistance, investment and a peace treaty to replace the 64-year-old armistice agreement. “Each side could commit to those objectives at the outset, with the timeline and key implementing framework to be negotiated,” he added. “There would be nothing in such an agreement that would be contrary to U.S. national security interests, and it would provide to North Korea the security that it claims justifies its nuclear weapons programs.”
It’s called the art of the deal.
It is most unlikely that North Korea would accept such a proposal. Its leader is obsessed, at least for now, with protecting his regime with nuclear missiles. But this overture, Bader notes, would “demonstrate to the South Korean government, and to its president, Moon Jae-in, that Washington is prepared to put an attractive offer on the table, since Moon is seeking avenues for reconciliation with the North. Moon could be given a leading role in trying to persuade Pyongyang to accept such a proposal. If Pyongyang refuses, as is likely, Moon will be more likely to support a serious containment and deterrence strategy.”
Such a proposal would give the initiative to us, rather than us waiting for China to rescue us with pressure on Pyongyang that never comes. Indeed, it would give the Trump administration the moral high ground with everyone, which will help to keep the Chinese and Russians behind sanctions and containment and deprive them of excuses that the North’s drive for nuclear weapons is the natural response to “threats” from the United States.
We didn’t get into this North Korea problem the short way, and we are not going to get out of it the short way. But the least bad option now is to gear up for a long game that contains, deters and isolates a nuclear-armed North Korea — by getting China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to see that America is ready to make peace with North Korea’s regime if it will abandon its nuclear weapons — and to keep that game going until the North either relents or cracks.
The more we freak out about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the more leverage it has. Instead we should be telling Kim Jong-un: “Hey, pal, not impressed with your nuclear toys, been there, done that with the Soviet Union. Time is on our side — and now the whole world is asking why you won’t accept our credible peace proposal. So have fun with your firecrackers! Don’t even think about lobbing one near us, or we might just shut off all the lights in your pathetic failing state. We can do that — just like we can make your rockets blow up or go off course. Have you noticed? And when your people get tired of eating potatoes every night, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Donald.