Deterrence and diplomacy are the only options for North Korea

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President Trump last week announced plans for talks between himself and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the first such direct negotiations between the two nations’ leaders. Pragmatically, the White House has stipulated few preconditions for the conversation, a decision that makes the as-yet unscheduled meeting more likely to be accomplished.

As details of when and where the summit will happen are settled, it is necessary to revisit the the question of the Kim regime’s intent for its nuclear program, which first detonated a nuclear device in 2006.

{mosads}National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — who emerged as the Trump administration’s leading advocate of a preventive strike on Pyongyang — claimed Kim’s primary mission is expansion.


His “intentions are to use that weapon for nuclear blackmail, and then, to, quote, you know, ‘reunify’ the peninsula under the red banner,” McMaster said in a representative expression of this view in December. “So, he would use this to extract payoffs,” McMaster continued, “as the regime has done with their nuclear program in the past, and to drive the States and our allies away from this peninsula that he would then try to dominate.”

For those duly skeptical of the efficacy and wisdom of preventive war — not least because of the incredible human suffering it would necessarily entail—the truth of McMaster’s argument is not nearly so “clear” as he claims.

As retired Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, has argued that, Kim is indeed “engaged in a huge game of blackmail,” but not as McMaster describes.

For all Kim’s bluster and extravagance, he leads “an exceedingly weak and arguably very fragile regime,” Bacevich said, “and my guess is their principal objective is to remain in power. So they are engaged in a complicated process of both trying to blackmail the West, and blackmail South Korea and most importantly trying to blackmail China, keep adversaries at bay and continue to be able to attract the kind of support they need to continue to exist.”

In this view, North Korea observes the long history of U.S.-orchestrated regime change in non-nuclear states. From the coup in Iran in 1953 to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, this concludes that nuclear armament is the dictator’s best insurance for preservation of power.

As Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan summarizes, “States will seek to develop nuclear weapons when they face a significant military threat to their security that cannot be met through alternative means; if they do not face such threats, they willingly remain non-nuclear states.”

Kim is in this sense a rational actor in pursuit of regime survival and dynasty preservation, perceiving nukes as his sole effective tool. That also means Washington can effectively and indefinitely deter him with overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority — because, again, his aim is not expansion.

McMaster’s expansionary framework is crucial to his dismissal of and deterrence as a viable option with North Korea and his push for Washington to take an aggressive, military-first approach. But both his premise and his conclusion are wrong — dangerously wrong and catastrophically risky — and North Korea, through conversations with South Korean officials, reportedly indicated as much this week.

“The North showed willingness on denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula,” said a statement from the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday. “If military threats to the North Korea decrease and regime safety is guaranteed, the North showed that it has no reason to retain nukes.”

The import of this statement should not be overblown. It does not mean Pyongyang is ready to disarm today. In fact, there is reason to be skeptical they will ever disarm. But it does provide real space for diplomatic progress during deterrence. It does confirm that Kim’s regime, though monstrous, is fundamentally weak and fearful.

Moreover, it demonstrates that voices like McMaster’s that promote preventive war are dealing not in reality but in a reckless fantasy which could all too easily claim the lives of millions, destroy U.S. alliances in Asia, undermine American security, and cause untold economic damage.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, an organization which inform citizens, thought leaders, and policy makers of the importance of a strong, dynamic military. Kristian is a weekend editor at The Week, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, Relevant Magazine, The Hill and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

Tags Donald Trump International relations Nuclear strategies

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