President Trump, on this as on so many issues, is long on bombast and threats while lacking a realistic plan to actually affect North Korean behavior. While Trump is louder and more provocative than his predecessors, what remains unchanged from the years of Obama and Bush is that North Korea holds almost all the advantages in this faceoff.
First, North Korea already has the ability to inflict massive damage and casualties in the tens if not hundreds of thousands on Seoul, which is only thirty-five miles from the DMZ. While the US could destroy most of the artillery North Korea has placed near the border, such an attack would take several days, more than enough time for North Korea to shoot thousands of shells at Seoul.
Second, North Korea has the ability to fire missiles with chemical weapons at South Korea, including at the American bases there where at least 25,000 Americans are located. For decades the American soldiers in Korea have been there as essentially hostages; too few to stop a North Korean invasion, but enough so that their deaths in an attack would provoke a massive US response. This reality is supposed to deter, and up until now has deterred, a North Korean invasion. However, the danger of American deaths in South Korea also acts as deterrence for an American attack on North Korea since such an attack would cause retaliation that would kill many of the Americans sitting on those bases.
Third, North Korea has missiles that could hit Japan and the American bases there. This would probably not kill many Japanese or Americans unless the missiles had chemical weapons, but even modest damage would have a devastating effect on the global economy.
Fourth, North Korea is largely immune to American pressure. The regime does not need to deliver economic growth to maintain its legitimacy. The fact that there was no challenge to the Kim dynasty when a half million citizens (one fortieth of the total population) died in famines in the 1990s, demonstrates that the regime and country can endure even though it is largely cut off from the global economy.
Fifth, China has an interest in maintaining the North Korean regime because a regime collapse would send huge numbers of Koreans fleeing into China. China does not want such a disruption. In addition, China has a strong strategic interest in making sure that South Korea, which is a close US ally (if we want to be polite) or client state (if we want to be more realistic), does not control the entire Korean peninsula up to China’s border and inherit the North’s nuclear arsenal. For that reason, China will allow North Korea enough access to China’s economy to sustain its economy and thereby allow the North to make continued progress in its nuclear buildup.
For these five reasons, Trump’s threats, like those of his predecessors, will not stop North Korea’s nuclear program. The generals who set American military policy know all this and they will not allow Trump to launch an attack to destroy Kim’s missiles since the consequences of provoking the North Koreans would destroy America’s standing in the world as well as spark a war. While the US has started a number of wars since 1945 most of those were in response to some armed act (with Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq the big exception). Such unprovoked attacks undermine America’s image as a keeper of peace and upholder of world order. In the past when the US invaded other countries the havoc that resulted was confined to that country. In this case, a US attack of North Korea would bring disaster to South Korea and Japan. Those key countries would no longer look at the US as their guardian but as the source of disorder. Every country in Asia then would decide it had to depend on China for security.
Finally, a war with North Korea would expose America’s decades-long missile defense program as the fraud that it is. Tests of those systems have failed more than they have succeeded and the few successes were in rigged conditions that were drastically different from actual war. American generals know most of North Korea’s missiles would get through the defense the US has placed in South Korea and Japan, and they are not willing to deal with the loss of budget and prestige that would come from such a demonstration of the fantasy nature of those high-tech weapons.
If there won’t be a war, then what will happen? The most likely is nothing. North Korea will continue to improve its missiles and nuclear weapons, and the US will have to learn to live with that new balance of terror in Asia, just as it learned to live with a nuclear and ever more powerful China, and before that the Soviet Union.
The alternative is for the US to negotiate directly with North Korea. The outlines of an agreement are clear because they have been proposed repeatedly by China to Trump and before that to Obama and Bush. The US would agree first to suspend war games with South Korea and in return North Korea would suspend missile and nuclear warhead tests. Then the US could offer to finally sign a peace treaty with North Korea, only sixty-four years after the cease-fire that ended the Korean War, and to end the sanctions it has imposed on that country. Those are significant inducements that North Korea is eager enough to gain that it would offer real concessions. Alternately, the US could take the steps necessary to assure China it need not fear a collapse of the Kim regime: namely the US could promise to remove its troops from South Korea upon the end of the Kim regime and get South Korea to pledge an internationally verified disarmament of all nuclear and chemical weapons it would inherit from the North. However, a deal either with China or directly with North Korea would require the US to show maturity and restraint and to acknowledge the limits of its power in Asia. If the US didn’t do that under Obama, it almost certainty won’t under Trump.