The war of words the past two months between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, ranging from humorous “rocket man” name-calling at the U.N. General Assembly to the President’s tweets regarding the North Korea’s ballistic missile testing and aggressive posturing, has added a strange comedic element to a very grave, dangerous, and complex geopolitical situation.
It is difficult to negotiate any kind of agreement with North Korea regarding their weapons capabilities and development primarily because they cling to their military retaliation, now in nuclear form, as protection against international intervention. North Korea is well aware that it is a country of barely 25 million people and which easily had its entire territory taken over in just a few months during the early stages of the Korean War before the People’s Republic of China’s intervention.
While North Korea has primarily avoided international action since the end of the Cold War by holding the millions of civilians in Seoul and the rest of South Korea hostage to artillery bombardment, now they have the even more potent deterrence of nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, undoubtedly North Korea studied the case of Saddam Hussein and Baathist Iraq carefully. For those who don’t remember, during the 1980’s Baathist Iraq had a significant biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons program. After the First Gulf War, Hussein was mandated to comply with various international agreements that stopped those weapons from continuing development, although he occasionally tried to do so. When the Iraq War began, he essentially had no deterrence.
All of these factors make it remarkably difficult to reach any kind of international inspections program to slow down or roll-back North Korea’s weapons development, as its tyranny’s self-interest pushes it to protect it with such a devastating deterrence. Furthermore, President Trump has clearly expressed through repeated Tweets in recent weeks his reluctance to pursue more of the same, in his words, “giving billions of dollars & getting nothing.”
The other main course of action is military force, which appears extraordinarily devastating. It was only just over a half a century ago that the Korean peninsula was flooded with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers during the Korean War, with tens of thousands of Americans never returning home and hundreds of thousands more wounded. That is not to mention the countless hundreds of thousands of other non-Americans killed in that conflict.
Nowadays, military conflict in North Korea would prove even more devastating. Despite North Korea having both a numerically tiny population and impoverished economy compared to the nations of the world, it has devoted an especially large portion of its budget and efforts to military preparation, infrastructure, and technology.
With one of the largest standing armies in the world, a conflict with North Korea would first and foremost result in massive civilian casualties, possibly hundreds of thousands quite quickly due to artillery bombardment, in Seoul and the rest of South Korea, let alone the ground conflict that would then follow afterward.
With nuclear weapons ballistic capabilities, even if the weapon is not capable of reaching the United States, there is still the potential for horrific human devastation that undoubtedly the regime would possibly resort to were conflict to break out as a means of deterrence to protect the regime’s existence.
There remain a variety of options that it appears the Department of State and our national security infrastructure are in the midst of exploring. These range from having China put economic and political pressure on North Korea, its historical ally, to talks of a decapitation strike against the regime to put more negotiable leaders in charge, to encouraging democratic movements in North Korea to replace their tyranny with a regular democracy.
While each of these options has their own unique benefits and drawbacks, it is clear the Trump Administration’s options at the moment remain grim. We are lucky that the Trump Administration currently is staffed by some of our country’s most decorated and experienced national security and diplomatic leaders, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and many more. If there is a solution, undoubtedly they will find it.
In the meantime, we are in a worrying situation as the North Korean regime continues to keep its people under awful Orwellian tyranny and mocks the Free World with its threats. Undoubtedly some resolution may come soon, but what road it takes remains deeply uncertain with all the risks, hardships, and costs of each option.