Six weeks ago, on the Fourth of July, North Korea for the first time tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. The launch was a "gift" to the United States, declared Pyongyang's news agency — the missile would be able to hit the "heart of the United States" with "heavy nuclear warheads."
Ten days later, CIA Director Mike Pompeo hinted broadly that the Trump administration was seeking regime change in North Korea.
While "it would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula," Pompeo said, "the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over [the missiles]. So from the administration's perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two."
Over the next several weeks, tensions escalated dramatically. President Trump threatened to unleash "fire and fury" at North Korea, and warned that military plans were "in place, locked and loaded." Kim Jong Un, the North's dictator, threatened a missile attack on Guam. Korean War II began to seem frighteningly plausible. But on Monday, in a joint op-ed essay, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson renounced any notion of toppling the Kim government. "The US has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea," they wrote.
Whereupon Pyongyang announced that Kim had decided not to attack Guam, after all.
Crisis averted. But only temporarily, because with Kim — megalomaniacal, erratic, and sadistic — the next crisis is always just down the road, which is where U.S. policymakers have been kicking the North Korean can for decades. Crises were defused during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies, too. One way or another, Washington has managed to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula through bipartisan policies that focused on sanctions, diplomacy, economic inducements, and deterrence. "Strategic patience" is the label Washington has given to this policy. Behold the results: a North Korea equipped with long-range missiles and close to being able to nuke an American city at will.
There are respected thinkers, both left and right, who see this as a tolerable situation. "History shows that we can, if we must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea," Susan Rice, the former Obama national security advisor, wrote last week. Military historian Max Boot likewise argues that just as we lived with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, we should accept Pyongyang's nukes — "then sit back and wait for North Korea's eventual collapse."
But given Pyongyang's brutal volatility and its long record of sudden, unprovoked murderous attacks, is "sit back and wait" a gamble we really wish to take?
Pompeo was right. It isn't Kim's nuclear warheads that are intolerable; it is Kim's regime. Changing that regime should be America's goal.
That does not mean going to war. It does mean working to induce North Korea's military and political elites to depose the dictator. It means circumventing the information blackout Pyongyang imposes within its borders, and flooding North Koreans with accurate information about the crimes of their rulers — and encouraging them to rise up in their own liberation. It means persuading China of the benefits it would realize from helping to bring about a post-Kim North Korea. Just for starters, those benefits include a much greater likelihood that two key U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, won't be tempted to build nuclear arsenals of their own.
Stephen Bryen, a former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urges the creation of a North Korean government-in-exile, formally recognized and supported by the United States. That would establish an alternative to the Kim regime as a concrete option, which could galvanize even more officials "to bolt from the regime or even sabotage it."
Is inducing regime change a realistic strategy? Admittedly, it isn't a certain strategy. Many things could go wrong. What is certain is the destination of the path we are on now: the world's most sociopathic regime armed with the world's most terrifying weapons.
As long as Kim remains in power, the prospect of another Korean War will loom over East Asia.
The time is long past to pull the plug on "strategic patience." Better by far to effect regime change in Pyongyang — not to trigger Korean War II, but to prevent it.