North Korea should be Trump's Cold War

North Korea should be Trump's Cold War
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Today’s headlines focus on President Trump’s latest feud: the one he is having with athletes, teams and leagues over honoring the national anthem. Still, my hunch is that a longer-standing conflict — the one between the U.S. and North Korea — will ultimately prove to be more significant. So, headlines notwithstanding, I will ignore the newest dust-up and concentrate on the older one.


In his U.N. address last week, Trump mocked Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man…on a suicide mission,” and he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it attacked the U.S. or its allies. On Saturday, North Korea’s foreign minister told the U.N. that Trump’s insults make a rocket strike against the U.S. mainland “inevitable.”


Virtually at the moment the foreign minister was speaking, U.S. bombers flew close to the coast of North Korea and continued flying along the coastline for an extraordinarily long time. The Department of Defense called the mission “a demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the President has many military options to defeat any threat.”

And Trump recently characterized Kim Jung Un as a “madman,” which repeats what he said about the supreme leader in May.

There are now voices in the U.S. advocating a preemptive strike against North Korea. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, has flatly stated that the U.S. should preemptively attack. John Bolton, our ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush, has opined that the U.S. should seriously consider preemptive attacks against both North Korea and Iran, if we cannot succeed in changing the regimes that govern those states.

How should the U.S. deal with North Korea?

The first question is: Is it realistic to think of Kim Jung Un as a “madman” who is “on a suicide mission”? Does that kind of language clarify or confuse the vital issues that are at stake?

The current Supreme Leader, Kim Jung Un, is himself the son and grandson of previous supreme leaders. His father and grandfather both died natural deaths. The Kim family has controlled the government of North Korea in an unbroken line for more than 70 years — since Harry Truman was in the White House.

The family’s uninterrupted control over North Korea indicates that the Kims are precisely the opposite of suicidal madmen. Suicidal madmen could not have seized and maintained control over their nation for three generations. Their long history is strong evidence that they have been very careful to preserve both their power and their lives.

Why then does Kim Jung Un seek to develop nuclear warheads and the intercontinental missiles that could be used to deliver them to places as distant as the U.S. mainland?

I believe he thinks of those weapons as effective deterrents against U.S. military intervention in North Korea, and I believe moreover that he is perfectly rational and correct in doing so.

So long as he possesses such weapons, a preemptive strike by the U.S. is too fraught with risk and danger to be worthwhile.

Thus, the calculus that Kim Jung Un is relying on is virtually identical, I think, to the calculus both sides relied on during the Cold War — and, in fact, that the U.S. and Russia continue to rely on today. Each side had (and continues to have) large nuclear arsenals, but neither side would willingly risk a first use, for fear of inevitable and devastating retaliation.

For Kim Jung Un, nuclear weaponry provides precisely the same kind of insurance: his regime is much less likely to face a military attack, from the U.S. or any other country, if he possesses a nuclear arsenal. The implication is that, however much he blusters, the supreme leader has no intention whatsoever of making first use of any nuclear weapons. (Speaking of bluster, recall the supreme leader’s threats to fire missiles at or around Guam; those threats never materialized.)

Moreover, if Kim truly intended to launch a nuclear first strike against the U.S. or its allies, it would make sense for him to try to hide the fact that he is developing such weapons. If one is going to attack a much stronger adversary, one would certainly want a surprise attack.

Kim does the opposite: he boasts of his weaponry. This, too, indicates that he sees his nuclear weapons as deterrents rather than as offensive, first-strike weapons.

Once we get past the entirely unsupported idea that the current supreme leader is a suicidal madman, we can more clearly see the steps the U.S. should take in response to North Korea’s nuclear program. Certainly, every kind of economic and diplomatic sanction should be levied against the Pyongyang regime, in the hope that those sanctions might cause the regime to alter its behavior.

But, on the military side of the equation, the U.S. must make maximum efforts to develop better anti-ballistic missile defenses. Although I believe Kim does not intend to make a first use of nuclear weapons, prudence compels us to protect against any such possibility.

And North Korea is not the only hostile country we face. Chants of “Death to America” echo in Iran. It continues to develop long-range missiles, and when important provisions of the Iran nuclear deal expire in less than fifteen years, Iran too would be close to possessing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. Indeed, then-President Obama conceded that Iran’s breakout time (the time it would need to construct a nuclear weapon) would be “almost down to zero” when the deal expired.

We need better defenses to protect ourselves and our allies, and we need to start developing and building them now.

David E. Weisberg is an attorney and a member of the New York State bar. His scholarly papers on constitutional law are published on the Social Science Research Network.