While most Americans celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks, North Korea had their version of fireworks by testing a new ballistic missile— believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach targets in the continental United States. Predictably, President Trump took to Twitter stating, “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” Apparently, the president doesn’t seem to understand that this is probably the most important thing Kim Jong-un has to do with his time.
While the U.S. is rightfully concerned that Pyongyang might eventually have the ability to reach the American homeland, we also assume that attacking America is the sole intent of North Korea’s pursuit of long-range missile capability. But even if North Korea is able to mate a nuclear warhead to an ICBM (not a trivial feat), that doesn’t automatically mean that the target would be a U.S. city. Kim Jong-un would have to be suicidal to launch a nuclear weapon against the United States, knowing that the vastly superior U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal could respond with utterly devastating results.
Like his father and his father’s father, Kim Jong-un is more interested in survival and perpetuating the Kim dynasty. Survival is the key word and why the relentless pursuit of ICBM capability is the most important thing Kim Jong-un has to do with his life.
What do Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi both have in common? Both did not have the capability to inflict damage on the U.S. with nuclear weapons and both were on the receiving end of regime change. While we assume North Korea wants ICBMs to attack the U.S., it is just as likely— perhaps even more likely– that they are more about staving off U.S.-led regime change. Certainly, nuclear weapons would be a powerful deterrent from North Korea’s perspective. That reality is probably not lost on Kim Jong-un— even if it is not understood by President Trump.
Another point missed by the president is China’s limitation and inability to reign in its client state’s ambitions. Trump followed up his original tweet with another: “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” While China has some leverage over North Korea as its biggest trading partner and main source of food, arms and energy, Pyongyang doesn’t simply bow to Bejing’s wishes. Moreover, the Chinese perspective is that stability on the Korean Peninsula is preferred to denuclearization. So the prospect of a North Korean implosion resulting in a failed state on their border is scarier than Kim Jong-un with long-range missiles and nukes.
What Trump’s tweets betray is that this administration really doesn’t have a coherent policy or well thought out plan when it comes to North Korea. That was apparent in U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s tweet complaining about North Korea’s missile test: “Spending my 4th in meetings all day. #ThanksNorthKorea.”
Hopefully, those meetings focused on real policy options and courses of action— other than the use of military force, which most experts agree would risk a catastrophic war– the U.S. should consider.
One option to consider is ending the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises that are conducted every March, which are a sore point with Pyongyang. A quid pro quo might be a suspension of those exercises in return for the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. Doing so would be relatively low-risk and if North Korea responds positively, it would be an important first step to achieving a resolution to tensions on the Korean peninsula. And it would provide incentive for South Korea to take greater responsibility for its own security rather than continuing to depend on the United States.
Another option to consider is withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. Certainly, it would be less incentive for North Korea to want to target the U.S. if American soldiers weren’t on its border. Moreover, those 23,000 troops aren’t capable of defending South Korea. They are simply a tripwire meant to guarantee a larger U.S. response to any North Korean aggression— even if such aggression does not directly threaten U.S. national security
But why should American blood be spilled when South Korea is far richer than North Korea and can more than afford to maintain a military capable of defending against it? North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated at $40 billion— about on par with the tiny Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu— while South Korea’s economy is more than 30 times larger at $1.3 trillion. North Korea is believed to spend about $10 billion on its military, about 25 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). South Korea spends only 2.6 percent of its GDP on defense, but that still amounts to $36 billion— more than three times what North Korea spends.
Ultimately, President Trump needs to understand that navigating a way forward with regard to North Korea will be complicated. There are no easy solutions. Just hard and imperfect choices. He is right to say that “something will have to be done” about North Korea. But Twitter is not how it will get done.