We are witnessing the last phase of Kim Jong Un’s quest for a thermonuclear ICBM that can hit any part of the mainland United States. With the launch of the newly unveiled Hwasong-15 over nearly 3,00 miles into the sky, North Korea is closer than ever to this goal. After decades of bipartisan wishful thinking and diplomatic naivety, the incontrovertible fact remains that the United States and our allies have been unsuccessful in stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapons progress.
The chances we will succeed in stopping Kim Jong Un now are slim. And that means we may soon be in a world where we must learn to defend against a North Korea that has the ability to turn any major U.S. city into rubble.
So far, the U.S. response has been strong statements of disapproval, and calling for more, tougher sanctions. “Ramp up the pressure,” as the conventional wisdom goes, and Kim will eventually cave. A central component of this plan relies on Chinese assistance. Amb. Haley wants China to cut off oil supplies to North Korea, and will likely push for even tighter banking restrictions. It would seem all America has to do is explain how displeased we are to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and he’ll finally cut off the North’s economic lifeline and force Kim to back off.
This is wishful thinking. For one, sanctions take time to work, and time is running out. North Korea is already the most isolated, penalized, ostracized nation-state on the planet. Deprivation is not a shock to North Korea, it’s the status quo. Kim’s regime is well practiced in operating black markets, arms smuggling, and even narcotics trafficking as ways to fill its coffers. North Korea has even engaged in state-sponsored cyber crime for profit. Being the ultimate pariah state has its advantages.
China can’t solve this for us either. Pressure from Beijing as the solution to Kim’s mad pursuit of nukes is overstated. While China can be a stabilizing influence in the short term, the United States and China envision fundamentally different futures for the North and South. Beijing does not want a unified Korean peninsula that becomes a liberal, prosperous, pro-U.S. democracy right on its border. From China’s perspective, the end of the Kim regime could mean America gets handed a massive forward operating base to box in Chinese regional ambitions. This is a non-starter for them.
When you add into the equation the importance to Kim Jong Un of a nuclear deterrent, the situation appears even more grim. The North Korean regime’s first priority is staying in power. Kim believes that the single greatest threat to his rule is a foreign invasion. No doubt he also recognizes that recent history show dictators with nukes (Russia, China) get to stay in power. Those who rely solely on conventional military deterrence or the fecklessness of the international community (Saddam, Gaddafi) are rolling the dice.
From Kim’s perspective, achieving full nuclear weapons capability solves many problems. Once it is clear he can put U.S. cities in ICBM crosshairs, his bargaining position is greatly improved. There will be no credible military threat against his regime. At that point, he may even pursue a thaw in relations with the U.S. and our allies. In a replay of his dad’s maneuvers in the 1990’s, Kim could accept improved economic relations and food aid in return for minor confidence building measures. An exchange under such circumstances might help us sleep at night with the hope that rapid escalation would be less likely, but would ultimately leave his nuclear weapons program untouched.
The unsettling truth is North Korea is getting closer to its nuclear goal every day. Meanwhile, here at home, emotions and political posturing are driving a lot of the rhetoric about how we should respond. While few members of Congress will want to admit this aloud, the increasingly likely scenario is that America will have to shift focus to countering the North Korean missile threat. Eradicating Kim’s nuclear weapons program (“denuclearization” in the official parlance) or even halting its progress looks increasingly like a fantasy.
Our leaders have been saying for the last two decades that a nuclear-armed North Korea that can threaten America is intolerable. That threat has become real. We are now at the point where a decision has to be made, and there are only two options: Prepare for a world in which Pyongyang could hit Washington, D.C., with a nuclear missile, or take imminent military action that could lead to all out war.
Buck Sexton is a political commentator, national security analyst and host of the nationally syndicated radio program, “Buck Sexton with America Now.” He is a former CIA officer in the Counterterrorism Center, appears frequently on Fox News Channel and CNN and has been a guest radio show host for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Follow Buck on Twitter @BuckSexton.