When Donald Trump first strides into the Oval Office as president, his perfect day is likely to be ruined by a file marked “North Korea.” Trump’s (first? only?) term in office may include either a messy confrontation with an unpredictable, highly combustible regime, or a rogue nation gaining the power to destroy large portions of Los Angeles with nuclear weapons. Or both.
Consider the viewpoint of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un — which is not easy since the exercise, properly done, should include platform shoes, Dennis Rodman and a “pleasure squad” of teen virgins. Kim looks at South Korea and sees political chaos, as its president is overwhelmed by a corruption scandal. He looks at America and sees massive uncertainty, created by an untested leader who has promised to reconsider security arrangements with South Korea and Japan and may begin an attention-diverting trade war with China.
America’s new president will look at North Korea and see a sworn enemy from a bloody war that has never officially ended, sprinting toward the capability to mount nuclear weapons on long-range missiles. The regime is not in need of new technologies or facilities; it is adapting capabilities that it already possesses. Between 2009 and 2016, North Korea conducted 64 missile tests and nuclear detonations. By some estimates, it may have the ability to strike the West Coast in four years. Or less.
President Trump will also see a regime of vast, bottomless cruelty, running gulags that contain more than 100,000 people subjected to violent punishment, rape, hard labor, malnutrition and execution. These ongoing crimes against humanity can be watched via satellite (the crematorium in Camp 25 recently got an upgrade).
The picture is bleak, but not completely bleak. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, in the midst of her crisis, has taken the unpopular but necessary step of strengthening military ties with Japan, including the pooling of intelligence. A landmark 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights abuses has subjected the regime to increased scrutiny and criticism.
But the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” has been hard to distinguish from paralysis in the face of bad choices. If the incoming president is searching for options to jump-start American policy, he could do worse than a new report from the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Center [note: I’m on the Initiative’s advisory council]. “Light Through Darkness” was authored by two Korea experts, Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci, who come from different party backgrounds.
The authors make a strong case that leadership in confronting the problem can’t be subcontracted to China. They set out a number of smart proposals such as targeting the North Korean regime’s export of slave labor (that helps fund proliferation) and increasing information flows into the closed and isolated country. But Cha and Gallucci are most creative in the way they integrate a focus on security and a focus on human rights — normally contending policy camps — into a single approach. They argue that the threat of North Korea emerges from the nature of the regime itself and that human rights criticism can be a source of leverage.
What matters more than incremental policy choices, however, is where the American red line is really, truly placed — not the announced one, but the red line in the back of the president’s mind. Is it acceptable to have North Korean nuclear weapons targeted on American cities?
Plenty of experts will give a firm “no.” Accommodating the North Korean nuclear threat to America would send the message that anti-proliferation efforts are essentially dead. It would put immense destructive power in the hands of a psychopathic leader. It would invite and enable emulation. It might provide North Korea with a sense of impunity, encouraging catastrophic miscalculations.
But some experts would reluctantly argue that North Korea is deterrable. Kim’s government is essentially a crime family, not a death cult, and would respond to the disincentive of incineration. In a certain sense, North Korea is already being deterred, because its missiles can already reach Seoul and Tokyo.
Would the American people be ready for the effective resumption of the Korean War? Would South Korea be willing to risk the shelling of its capital to enforce an American nuclear red line?
It is strategic realities and hard choices that will determine the outcome of the Korea crisis, not a set of business-book negotiating skills. This is reality television — minus the television.
— Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.