Michael Hayden: Trump's realist UN speech gives reason to hope on North Korea

Asked to comment on North Korea’s recent missile launch, I reflexively defaulted to an intelligence officer's habitual realism. Some might even call it skepticism.

My mind just kept turning to the 19th century French proverb: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Despite a great deal of energy from the Trump administration, the North Koreans have continued their inexorable march to strategic reach and the ability to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon. (In fact, the only thing that has changed much in the last eight months is that the North has more and longer range missiles and more and more powerful bombs.)

And, despite the embarrassment for Beijing caused by Kim Jong Un flouting the wishes of the Middle Kingdom, China continues to abide his behavior rather than inflicting decisive diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang.

And, despite emergency meetings and stern words and faces, the U.N. Security Council continues to pull its punches on really damaging sanctions on the North for fear of destabilization, genuine humanitarian concerns and a reluctance by some to be seen as being just the tail on an American kite.

When I was in government we used to refer to North Korea as a wicked problem. It’s not surprising the issue has been handed off from one administration to another. There simply aren’t any good answers here. There are some problems in life for which there aren’t any solutions.

Which doesn't mean you don’t try or you don’t work to minimize ill effects even in the absence of real resolution. So credit the Trump administration for working this problem hard. They didn't create this. This was inherited.

But the current team would be advised not to dump too much on their predecessors as “whistling past the graveyard” or otherwise ignoring the problem. They didn’t. And I suspect that Team Trump will be handing off a bit of an ugly baby when they eventually leave office, too.

Or at least I hope they hand off an ugly baby because I fear the only alternative — some sort military action against the North — would leave us in a much worse place. Even “kinetic action light” — like shooting at a missile in flight or on the launchpad — could prompt North Korean action endangering the 25 million inhabitants of greater Seoul and it would certainly harden North Korean resolve to preserve their nuclear arsenal at all cost.

The North will never give up its nuclear status, but team Trump might be able to hand off a baby a little less ugly than the one they inherited. The administration has already demonstrated American resolve and seriousness. However reluctantly, others have amped up economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang in response. We have shown we're ready to increase our defense and deterrence in the region. Everyone is exasperated with a truly irritating little gangster state.

Patient and persistent American statecraft could build up enough of a sense of isolation to convince the North Koreans they have pretty much played out the current string.

That will demand American and international acceptance of some nuclear status for the North (perhaps tacitly rather than explicitly) but might it be possible to trade that for Pyongyang capping, slowing, limiting, rolling back or just making more transparent their residual program?

Such a state of affairs would be distasteful, of course. And no doubt Pyongyang would use the occasion to extort more assistance from the global community.

But it could set the scene for those robust allied forces for defense and deterrence with Beijing being forced to accept what for them would be a bitter pill of more and better armed Americans, Japanese and Koreans in the neighborhood.

It could also strengthen our demands for genuine international cooperation against what might be the greatest threat of all from the North Korean program — the proliferation of weapons, missiles and nuclear materials to third parties.

Such an arrangement would be as fragile as it would be distasteful, of course. There would always be the danger of the North Koreans cheating. On the other hand, there are no guarantees that the North Korea of Kim Jong Un survives forever, either.  

What’s less clear is the willingness of the current administration to seek such an off-ramp from the current crisis. It has actually been hard to discern America’s bottom line on all of this.

To read the president’s earlier tweets, it is the existence of a North Korean nuclear capacity that is problematic. Hence, the “fire and fury” language — which is a good place to be in response to North Korean nuclear use, but not such a good place if it is the harbinger of a preemptive strike.

One hopes that we have not painted ourselves into a rhetorical corner.

The rather restrained response to last week’s missile launch over Japan offers some reason for optimism. Secretary Tillerson has worked to convince the North Koreans that our goals are not maximalist. Secretary Mattis’ very tough words have been focused on actual threats from the North rather than on theoretical capabilities. And Tuesday at the UN, President Trump reserved his over-the-top “rocket man” and “totally destroy” rhetoric for actual threats while referring to diplomacy and sanctions when it came to potential denuclearization.

I began this piece emphasizing the realism and occasional skepticism of intelligence officers. This last bit seems optimistic. Even pessimistic intel guys have the right to hope.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.