Can Trump Cut a Deal With North Korea?
On November 29, I was in Tokyo standing in front of a room full of students and professors at Waseda University giving a lecture on the challenges of nuclear disarmament. Outside the lecture hall, the sky was blue. The leaves on the trees were peak yellow and red. When the question-and-answer session following my lecture reached a lull, I said, “Let me ask you a question.” My host, seated on the stage, chuckled at my forwardness.
“I woke up at four this morning because of jet lag,” I began. “I looked at the news on my phone and saw that North Korea launched another missile that could carry a nuclear weapon all the way to the United States. The missile landed in the Sea of Japan. At first I tried to avoid thinking about what it means and what I could do about it. Then I realized I was not in Washington, but in Hiroshima. This made the situation much more disturbing. My question is: You live near North Korea and your country is the only one that’s been bombed with nuclear weapons. So how do you think about what North Korea is doing?”
Silence. The professor smiled. “Japanese reticence,” he said, encouraging both the students and me. After maybe 20 seconds, a young man with an early Paul McCartney haircut raised his hand.
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“We think about whether we should get the iPhone X.” The students laughed awkwardly, as did I.
That night, flying to Beijing, I wondered about the different ways we all cope with profoundly scary prospects beyond our control. Cool gadgets and video games are nice diversions to have. Hoping that someone will sort it all out is another natural escape. Avoiding the reality that the safest solution sometimes requires accommodating an adversary is another.
But leaders have obligations not to avoid reality. They actually control whether there will be nuclear war or peace with North Korea. Kim Jong Un is one such leader, along with his top military officers. Donald Trump is another, along with the chain of command under him. Xi Jinping is also relevant, though the Chinese leader will neither start nor join a war over North Korea, nor, despite U.S. hopes, make or break a diplomatic deal to create a modus vivendi between North Korea and the rest of the world.
We have little evidence to judge whether Kim has a desire and a strategy to stabilize the decades-old confrontation between his country and the United States, South Korea and Japan. We do have some evidence that President Trump is avoiding the realities of the situation and the hard-to-swallow fact that there is no glorious way out of it. After the latest missile test, he tweeted: “This situation will be handled.” This sounds like phone-playing avoidance more than it does a leader with a viable strategy.
There are three options, none of them winners. Military strikes and war are one. Without giving away secrets, civilians and military officers in the enormous U.S. defense establishment tell friends that unprecedented intensive planning is underway for military operations against North Korea. This noise could be meant to scare Kim Jong Un into backing down; it’s also an inevitable consequence of the size and advanced preparation required for a war with North Korea.
Unfortunately, there is no “surgical” way to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons without invading and occupying the country. Key elements of the nuclear weapon program, and perhaps the biological weapon program too, are deeply underground. The U.S. would not know whether it destroyed all the material and people that matter unless American forces were on the ground to search. United States and South Korean forces ultimately could destroy the North Korean regime and military. But, in the process South Korea could suffer major casualties and destruction, as would North Korea, and that’s assuming no nuclear weapons are used. If the United States undertook such a military campaign before North Korea had attacked, the rest of the world would turn against Washington as never before.