Two bad options on North Korea: Acceptance or war

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Soldiers march across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade on April 15 in Pyongyang, North Korea.

The Trump administration’s approach to the deadly serious problem of North Korea is the worst of all possible formulations. It is Teddy Roosevelt, turned upside down – “Speak loudly, and pretend to carry a big stick.”

What the administration wants is absolutely the ideal objective, to prevent North Korea from acquiring the capability to launch nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States. This has been the “red line” objective of the last several administrations. And they have all wished to do this without using force.

But the means being discussed, such as putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism (“sticks and stones may break my bones…”), banning the North Korean airline from flying places it will never fly anyway, and banning the import of North Korean seafood (seriously?), are almost comically insufficient to the problem. Then there’s the “armada,” 3,500 miles away, but, maybe, on the way. These things, and other non-military options which might be considered, all pale by comparison to both the carrots and sticks that have already been used by prior presidents.

The hope that President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can persuade China to exercise maximum leverage against North Korea — perhaps shutting off energy supplies, or stopping the regime  from reaching nuclear ICBM capability through sanctions-backed diplomacy, while also preventing it from “going out with a bang” if it thought it would be stopped — is almost certainly a mirage. Likewise, even the best offensive cyber-wafare operations can do little more than slow down the march toward nuclear capability against us.

Even limited preemptive military action won’t work. How could merely wounding and cornering a fierce animal not lead to a rageful last gasp of dreadful retaliation?

There is a good reason none of these are viable options. It’s because, from the North Korean point of view, only achieving that most fearsome military capability can provide reasonable assurance of this regime’s long-term existence. The North Korean leader wants there to be a parade for him, like the one we recently saw for his elders, on the 105th anniversary of his birth, and he must have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them against the United States to maximize the chance of that happening. Under any scenario in which his, and his regime’s, survival is in doubt, he can be counted on to take with him as many of his enemies as he has any means to do.

So here is the truly horrible truth about North Korea. There are only two choices.

The first is that we acknowledge and accept, as we have done with Russian and Chinese ICBM capabilities for decades, and then try to deter and contain, and to defend against, a North Korea able to strike us with nuclear weapons.

If this is, however, literally unacceptable — because we believe these weapons to be far more likely to be used offensively by the North Koreans than we have ever feared their use by the Russians and Chinese — then the alternative, the only alternative, is war. War waged to victory, not stalemate. War waged and won before the North Koreans achieve their weapons development goal. War waged with both sufficient force and tactical surprise, so as to not leave the opponent wounded, cornered, and still able to lash out.

This means the WWII notion of war, one aimed at toppling the enemy regime and destroying its capacity for harm, not limited “surgical strikes” aimed to send messages or merely degrade the other side. In the case of North Korea, limited war would almost certainly lead to total war, which would likely include the North’s use of nuclear weapons. So if any use of force will very probably lead to total war, it needs to be total war from the outset, on the most advantageous terms from our perspective.

There are very many, right across our otherwise highly polarized polity, who, if they believe this description of the real alternatives is correct, would opt for the acceptance of a long-term North Korean nuclear threat to the United States, rather than the undoubtedly terrible costs and consequences of war.

There are others who argue that a sincerely believed American commitment to as decisive a war as we waged in WWII, including all necessary preparations and all necessary sacrifices to fulfill that commitment, would cause the Chinese and Russians to ally with us, as indeed they both did in WWII. Better, as powers craving space in the global sun, to be part of a world police force, than bystanders to the reemergence of American hegemony, or to start World War III,  seeking to stop American hegemony.

Such a course of events, with the world’s three leading military powers joining together to preempt aggression by a rogue state, would amount to the more than 70-year delayed birth of the U.N. Security Council, as it was intended to work.

Frightful though it surely is, there is a clock ticking on this decision, and sound judgments cannot be made on the basis of false premises. Our choices are both bad and difficult. Our choices are acceptance or war.

Craig Snyder is president of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphiacsnyder@wacphila.org

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