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What Trump should do about North Korea: Talk

It would be hard to do. And it’s by no means risk free. But it’s a lot better than the alternatives.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un inspecting tires at a factory.
KCNA via REUTERS

It’s time to swallow hard and find a way to talk to Kim Jong Un.

Sure, North Korea recently fired a missile that appears powerful enough to put the entire United States in range. Sure, the U.S. will probably have to make some concessions if it’s serious about wanting to freeze Kim’s nuclear and missile programs. Sure, Kim would see it as a propaganda victory, and perhaps as a tactical victory.

And sure, the U.S. would be signing up for more years of threats and bluster aimed at extracting even more concessions. It would have to be practical, clear and consistent — probably through several presidential administrations — about what is unacceptable behavior. That’s very hard to do. And it’s by no means risk free.

But as long as you keep talking, you’re not shooting.

Drifting toward conflict

If recent experience shows anything, it’s that declaring it unacceptable for a country like North Korea to have nuclear weapons is mostly bluff, based on the bet that outside pressure can make it too costly to continue. If your opponent is securely in power, doesn’t care about the cost and doesn’t crave international acceptance, he’ll call that bluff. If you choose military action then, unless you’re incredibly lucky, you’re looking at a scenario in which tens of thousands of people — perhaps millions — will die, including a lot of Americans.

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Declaring that Kim must first give up his nuclear program, matching him insult for insult and counting on China to pressure North Korea is encouraging a drift toward conflict. Kim isn’t listening to the Chinese, and he isn’t slowing down. The scenarios for military action only work out if everything goes perfectly. It never does. It would be foolish to expect success in a country as isolated and mysterious as North Korea.

Former U.S. officials and foreign policy experts were widely quoted this fall as giving estimates of the chances of war with North Korea ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent. Evan Osnos, the New Yorker writer who visited North Korea for a long story published this fall, finds that a worrisome indicator of groupthink on the U.S. side.

Furthermore, he argues, the Trump administration’s assumption that Kim would try to use his nuclear arsenal to reunify the Korean peninsula by force may encourage the same “strike first” mentality that led the United States into Iraq. While no one knows Kim’s intentions, he might well be satisfied with less — like ensuring his own survival.

Mark Bowden’s piece in the Atlantic, published this summer, remains one of the clearest and most sobering examinations of the options on North Korea.

Because of North Korea’s xenophobic isolation and difficult terrain, even a massive pre-emptive strike is unlikely to destroy all of Kim’s nuclear warheads, much less his chemical and biological weapons. He would almost certainly use those he had left.

Says Bowden: “This means an American first strike would likely trigger one of the worst mass killings in human history.”

How about a limited strike, aimed at taking out Kim’s nuclear arsenal but leaving him in power? It’s extremely difficult to keep that from turning into all-out war. Kim, not you, decides whether to escalate. He still would have a massive amount of artillery that could hit Seoul, the South Korean capital.

What about a decapitation strike, either a covert operation or an aerial bunker-busting attack aimed at taking out Kim? Both depend on superb intelligence, and there is no reason to believe the U.S. has it. If you miss, and you probably will, all bets are off.

Placing a bet

Talking also means placing a bet: That despite the wild rhetoric, Kim is rational. He doesn’t want to die, and he wants to stay in power. It would cost you something. You might have to offer diplomatic recognition, a path to easing sanctions or a reduction in joint military exercises with South Korea.

Short of full diplomatic relations, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, suggests setting up “interest sections,” that would provide a conduit for communications, much the way the U.S. dealt with Cuba for decades. Clapper, who once served as a military intelligence officer in South Korea, says it’s not unreasonable to discuss a formal peace treaty with North Korea.

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Negotiations would have to be accompanied by a clear warning that you would fight if Kim dared touch U.S. territory or a U.S. ally. And that if you did fight, Kim would die and his country would be obliterated.

Ignoring Kim, as President Obama tried to do, didn’t work. Crazy doesn’t work, as President Trump is demonstrating. It’s possible that a combination of talk and pressure won’t, either. On a gut level, it’s less satisfying than making a dramatic move to eliminate the threat.

But this is a time for cool heads committed to a long, unglamorous slog. That is to say, diplomacy. How about shutting down his Twitter feed and seeing if Trump can cut a real deal to reduce a real threat? If so, he’d actually have something worth saying about the art of the deal.