Americans tend to think that all problems have solutions — if only the right policy is applied. Yet North Korea, the ultimate "problem from hell,” has defied the efforts of five U.S. presidents — from George H.W. Bush to Donald Trump — for the past 25 years, with no end in sight.
The current hysterical alarmism in the aftermath of North Korea's very intentionally timed Fourth of July intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, however, benefits no one more than Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong Un. He thrives on the attention that reinforces his internal standing, and the more the U.S. saber-rattles, the more it plays into the North Korean threat-victim narrative and unnecessarily heightens tensions.
But apparently no one has told President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE. His ridiculous tweets and repeated threats that he will take “severe” actions and that he will “use force if necessary” are either extremely reckless or empty bluffs. Recall his January tweet that an ICBM test “won’t happen.” In either case, Trump needs to discover his inner Teddy Roosevelt — right now, he is talking loudly and carrying a wet noodle. He needs to know when to be silent and quietly apply pressure.
As horrible of a threat that North Korea, armed with a nuclear weapon that could hit the United States, will be, we all need to take a deep breath and reflect on the current reality. First, it is no surprise: North Korea has been beavering away at its missile and nuclear weapons for 30 years.
The best guess is that it already has at least eight to 10 nuclear weapons and probably a miniaturized warhead that they could fit onto one of more than 100 deployed No Dong missiles, which could hit U.S. military bases in South Korea and Japan.
So, in fact, we have been living with a North Korean nuclear threat for some time. Despite the successful test, Pyongyang is still several years away from an operational ICBM that could hit the U.S. mainland. It has yet to demonstrate that it can land a reentry vehicle and hit a target, let alone one with a nuclear weapon on it.
The uncomfortable truth is that deterrence has worked on the Korean Peninsula since 1953. We are now in a state of mutual deterrence. But unlike the Cold War's Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), now it is just AD — North Korea may be able to damage the U.S., but the U.S. can destroy North Korea. Even with an ICBM, Kim knows that if his country uses this WMD, there would be a swift, overwhelming U.S. response. The one and only redeeming feature of North Korea is their imperative to survive, that they are not suicidal.
Kim is dangerous, but neither crazy nor unbalanced. After seeing the fate of Qaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Pyongyang sees nuclear weapons as, at a minimum, an ultimate insurance policy against a U.S. attack and/or regime change. But Kim’s breakneck efforts to obtain a sophisticated nuclear dyad (sea and land-based) and multi-tiered array of missiles raise the question of why? Wouldn’t four to five nukes provide adequate deterrence? Does he think he can threaten or win a limited nuclear war against the U.S.?
Yet, for all the fulminations about pre-emptive strikes, it is a very dubious option. First, we do not have precise intel on which mountains and tunnels their missiles — some mobile — are stored. We do not know exactly how many nuclear weapons they have nor where they are. We do not know how many highly enriched uranium production facilities there are or their location. So how would pre-emptive strikes, which would put Pyongyang in a “use it or lose it” nuclear situation, solve the problem?
Moreover, on any given day, there are perhaps 80,000 Americans (including 28,000 U.S. troops and their families) in the greater Seoul area within range of some 10,000 artillery tubes, SCUD and other missiles, as well as nukes. Catastrophic losses in the hundreds of thousands could result from a North Korean response to U.S. strikes.
This does not necessarily mean we have a hopeless standoff. Current sanctions against North Korea are puny compared to those we applied to Iran. The Treasury Department can, and has begun to, end North Korean access to the international financial system. We can catch many of their cash couriers. We can disrupt their missile and nuclear programs by applying sanctions on banks and front companies in China, Malaysia and elsewhere that enable Pyongyang to procure key parts and components for such programs.
We can take offensive cyber measures and Putin-like active measures. China’s cooperation is essential, and we should stress to Beijing that Korean missiles can fly in all directions. Such efforts could change Pyongyang’s calculus. Stay tuned.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001-04, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004-08, on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group and at the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Counter-Proliferation Center 2008-12. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4.
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