Why you should care
Because we are talking about nukes in the hands of a not-so-rational actor.
As America wields its military might around the globe, and North Korea vows to match nukes for nukes amid this weekend’s “Day of the Sun” celebrations, we sat down with OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin to discuss the latest twists and turns. President Trump has sharply criticized the North for its nuclear tests and missile tests, and he has also engaged China — North Korea’s longtime ally and largest trading partner — to help pressure Pyongyang into less bellicose behavior.
The Hermit Kingdom’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, meanwhile, has responded to the news that the U.S. is sending a naval strike force to the area by threatening to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon. We asked McLaughlin to break the problem down and to think through U.S. options for dealing with the North.
There are no great options or easy answers — only less-bad options.
How well do we understand Kim Jong-un?
John McLaughlin: We know much less about him than his father, Kim Jong-il. Some Americans met the father, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and while he was a tough dictator buoyed by a cult of personality, he seemed well-informed, rational and hard-working. He was also better groomed for power and older, 54, when he came to office. His son was barely 30 and carried the reputation of an ill-disciplined playboy who is now rumored to drink a lot and not work very hard. His purges also have been more brutal and extensive than his predecessor’s, by some accounts killing more than 70 of his opponents in his first four years.
A good way to think about Kim is that no one has ever told him no. So we just cannot be sure how rational he is or how well prepared he is to deal with decision-making under stress.
What are the U.S.’s interests here — our chief concerns?
McLaughlin: Three things. First, the North, despite fizzles like Saturday’s attempted launch of a shorter range missile, is moving closer to producing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States; they’ve had two successful satellite launches, demonstrating some mastery of the required multistage technology. Second, they have a track record of proliferating missile technology to countries such as Iran, and because this is a cash-strapped kleptocracy, they might also sell enriched plutonium or uranium to terrorists or others. And third, they have long posed a serious conventional threat to our South Korean allies and to the 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there.
What motivates Kim — why does he want nuclear weapons?
McLaughlin: It’s pretty simple really. Just like his father, he thinks nuclear weapons will protect him from what he believes is Western determination to overthrow his regime. He looks at Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi and thinks they’d still be here if they had acquired nuclear weapons.
There are rumors the U.S. is considering a preemptive strike on the North because of its nuclear and missile progress. Does this make sense?
McLaughlin: No, the situation is too complicated to be dealt with by a preemptive military strike. Unlike Syria and Afghanistan, where the U.S. carried out strike operations in the last several days, North Korea has a strong retaliatory capability. They can pound the South Korean capital, Seoul, with artillery and chemical weapons. And there’s a good chance they already can mount a nuclear weapon — they appear to have between 12 and 20 — on a short- or medium-range missile that can hit allies like South Korea or Japan.
Moreover, if a strike led to societal collapse, we would be dealing with a massive humanitarian crisis while also having to find and neutralize the remaining nuclear weaponry and material. Everyone may want a more humane and friendly regime in the North, but the challenge is how to ensure a “soft” landing when what seems like an inevitable collapse occurs.
So, if not a strike, what options do we have?
McLaughlin: Like most of today’s international problems, there are no great options or easy answers — only less-bad options. And they all come with risks. We need a mix of tactics to simultaneously deter and pressure. The U.S. naval strike group arriving in the vicinity may serve to deter Kim from doing something rash and stupid. We could combine that with tougher sanctions and try to re-institute multilateral talks involving the North — the last ended unsuccessfully in 2008.
The sanctions in place are focused mostly on punishing past and deterring future weapons proliferation and illicit financial transfers. Harsher sanctions on trade and on the North’s economic front companies would bite harder but would require Chinese cooperation. Annoying and frustrating as it could be to get into another series of talks with the North, there is potential benefit in a process that substitutes this saber-rattling — or at least cushions the rattle, especially when the sabers are nuclear.
Make no mistake, negotiating with the North would be maddening, and it may even be too late. Pyongyang tends to use such talks to seek concessions on aid without yielding much in return. And it has a record of cheating on agreements.
But will the Chinese help us with North Korea?
McLaughlin: Maybe, but not eagerly. What does seem clear is that they too are unhappy with Kim. He has yet to visit China, even though he depends on Beijing to relieve desperate food and energy shortages. Moreover, China has expressed dismay over Kim’s nuclear and missile tests and has joined in some U.N. sanctions. Most recently, China has cut off North Korean coal imports, about 35 percent of the North’s exports and a major money-earner. But China wants to maintain a divided peninsula and would be on guard against anything that weakened Pyongyang so severely as to threaten its viability as a nation.
Any wildcards to worry about?
McLaughlin: Plenty, and the most serious is this: Eight other countries have nuclear weapons. Although some are U.S. rivals, we are able to arrange communications or formal dialogue with them about nuclear matters. We have none of that with North Korea, which raises the chance of miscalculation — on both sides.
So truly heroic diplomacy is required to bring all this together into a strategy that tames North Korea. As is often the case in hard times, we are probably best advised to fall back on the wisdom of the founders, in this case Benjamin Franklin’s adage that “persistence is the secret to success.” That’s not much, but with North Korea, it’s better than nothing.
John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.