OPINION: Trump is about to learn a harsh lesson about Kim Jong Un
© Getty Images

North Korea has successfully launched what they claim and we believe to be an intercontinental ballistic missile. It only went about 600 miles, but its exaggeratedly high arc showed enough inherent energy for it to travel about 4,000 miles with a normal trajectory, enough to reach targets in Alaska, but not (yet, at least) the Lower 48.

We always figured we'd be here one day, since Pyongyang sees nuclear reach as a question of regime survival.

The Kim dynasty of North Korea has always viewed the world as hostile. In fact, they NEED to see the world that way to justify the kind of regime that the family has built: brutally autocratic, extravagantly militarized, self-consciously destitute. 

Words unfamiliar to most westerners are holy writ in the Kims’ hermit kingdom. Juche, self reliance, is the doctrine that underpins keeping the rest of the world out while demanding incredible personal sacrifice within. Songun, putting the military first, was so pervasive that it insulated the regime from the worst effects of the “arduous march,” the 1990s famine that killed half a million people. Byungjin, a nod to the need for economic development, was only made possible by the drive to nuclear weapons, a cheaper form of combat power than armor or infantry brigades.

So, to respond to a recent presidential tweet taunting Kim Jong Un: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” The answer is, well, no. Nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems are as essential to regime identity as they are to regime survival. 

ADVERTISEMENT

I negotiated with the Korean People's Army at the truce village of Panmunjom in the late 1990s. Our side wasn't trying to do much, just some increased transparency and some confidence-building measures to prevent or contain incidents along the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, the most heavily fortified patch of land on the planet. 

 

We made little progress. The best we could do was to arrange the dignified return of the remains of some North Korean commandos who had intentionally blown themselves up in a midget submarine that had become disabled during an infiltration of the South.

At the time, I marveled about the cognitive dissonance that my North Korean counterparts had to tolerate in order to say and believe some of the things they told me. In retrospect, though, I think I had my own issues trying to build tactical bridges of trust and confidence with a system that thought that I represented undying enmity and abject perfidy. It wasn't an act on their part. They inhabited a system that took meaning, even existence, from that perception of enmity and perfidy.

Which brings us back to today and the problem faced by the Trump administration — a problem recognized, addressed but not resolved by the last three administrations.

Team Trump has certainly been focused, but even with all the energy of the last six months — charged rhetoric, a presidential promise that this wouldn't happen, bashing the Obama administration’s “strategic patience,” multiple naval deployments, alternately leaning on and incentivizing China to do more — Kim Jong Un remains undeterred. 

Even with an occasional presidential shout out — Kim’s a “pretty smart cookie” and “I would be honored” to meet him — or signals of restraint like Pacific Commander Harry Harris characterizing this as about changing minds, not regimes, Kim has been unresponsive.

All of which tends to confirm a quiet intelligence community judgment that's been around for more than a decade: North Korea is not about to give up its nuclear status.

Back in my Panmunjom days, we thought that Pyongyang was on its last legs. No longer. The North’s struggling economy is modestly improving under Kim.

If there ever were a viable military option to cripple North Korea’s strategic weapons program, that day has passed. Even a one-time advocate of such a strike, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, has admitted as much. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE has a flair for the dramatic, so one hopes that he is quickly disabused of any aggressive military options. Some might suggest unilaterally going big in the other direction — accommodating Kim with a peace treaty, meeting him, formally conceding nuclear status, perhaps less robust and less hostile — but that should be equally distasteful to us and our friends. 

This leaves the administration with a familiar list of options: more ballistic missile defenses in the region and in North America; more U.S. deployments to the Korean peninsula; overt and covert efforts to slow the North’s technical progress; more aggressive sanctions against North Korean entities to raise the costs to the regime; really holding overall Sino-American relations hostage to Beijing, amping up the pressure on Pyongyang.

These would limit (but not eliminate) the threat, but could also cause enough pain to lead to renewed negotiations in one format or another (we've already tried bilateral, four-party and six-party talks). 

There, of course, we would ultimately have to make a painful decision on whether to concede some degree of nuclear status to the North in return for a freeze on weapons activity that would be fragile and difficult to monitor.

That may actually constitute “winning,” and it's not very pretty.

President Trump recently complained that Clinton and Obama had been outplayed by the Kims. He is now seeing that this isn't as easy as it looks — and perhaps is recognizing that his predecessors weren't as inept or as weak as he may have previously claimed.

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


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.