Donald Trump has attacked Syria with cruise missiles because of its use of chemical weapons (chemical weapons that it supposedly got rid of and agreed not to use). What happens next, as Bashar al-Assad continues to bomb Syrian cities he doesn’t control, is the question. The cruise missile attacks were relatively easy. What happens next is harder – and may be what stopped Barack Obama from doing anything.
But harder still is North Korea. President Trump has said that, if China won’t help us stop North Korea from getting not only nuclear weapons but also an ICBM capable of hitting the United States, we will do it ourselves. Now that is hard.
Also, if we attack North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, will they use their masses of conventional artillery along the Demilitarized Zone to attack the 25 million people in Seoul? We can’t reasonably assume that Kim Jung Un wouldn’t do that.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Philip Coyle, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, tell us the key to the problem is direct negotiations with North Korea. Color me doubtful. What good is talking if the two sides can’t envision something that they both might be able to agree on? Obviously, we can’t know for sure what North Korea would agree to, but we do know (i) what we would agree to (we don’t need to say it out loud) and (ii) what North Korea’s main concern is.
It is the latter that causes most of the problems. North Korea’s main concern is Kim Jung Un staying in power. Therein lies the rub. Because North Korea and Kim Jung Un have looked around and, not being stupid, they decided they need nuclear weapons and a way to use them; i.e., missiles, to stay in power.
Take a look at some recent history; North Korea certainly does. In 2002/03, the US thought Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Regardless of whether that belief was true or not, we thought they did, so we invaded. One of the reasons we could justify invading, even though we thought Iraq had WMD, was that they had no way to use them, other than directly on the battlefield.
Certainly, that is the lesson Moammar Gadhafi of Libya took from the invasion of Iraq – and Saddam Hussein’s death. Because Moammar Gadhafi really did have nuclear weapons. But he had no way to deliver them. He thought, oops. Therefore, he decided that, since he didn’t have a way to really use his nuclear weapons, he might be better off to not have nuclear weapons in the first place. And so, behind the scenes, Moammar Gadhafi and the United States agreed on Libya turning over its nuclear weapons.
Which pretty well taught countries like Iran – and North Korea, that, if they thought they needed nuclear weapons for their security, they needed missiles, too.
But, if staying in power is really the reason North Korea is trying to get nuclear weapons – and an ICBM capable of hitting the United States, there is one more lesson from the United States’ actions in Iraq and Libya, etc. As I mentioned, Moammar Gadhafi decided, after the invasion of Iraq, that since he had no way of using his nuclear weapons, his nuclear weapons not only didn’t make him safer, they made him more vulnerable. So he negotiated to give them up. What he didn’t count on was what happened next. I don’t know if there was any agreement or understanding between the United States and Libya when Colonel Gadhafi gave up his nuclear weapons. However, I bet Colonel Gadhafi was surprised when, in 2011, the Obama administration decided to bomb Libya because Colonel Gadhafi was threatening to massacre Libyan civilians in Benghazi. He was probably even more surprised when the U.S. extended the scope of what it was doing in Libya to oust him from power, which ultimately got him killed (just like Saddam Hussein). One wonders if Colonel Gadhafi really understood all that when he gave up his nuclear weapons.
Even if he didn’t understand that, North Korea does. Which makes the idea of negotiating an agreement to get North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons and/or its missile program more than a little unrealistic.2 Not only do we not trust North Korea to comply with any agreement (they don’t have a good track record in that regard), but North Korea wouldn’t believe what we promised. If whatever agreement, if any, we had with Libya allowed us to kick Colonel Gadhafi out when he threatened to massacre his own people (or if we did it anyway), how can North Korea feel comfortable giving up their nukes and missiles when what they do, on an everyday basis, is already worse than anything Colonel Gadhafi threatened to do?
I’m not saying I have a solution. I’m just saying that the problem is worse than it seems. We are going to need some really good thinking and some really good strategy. I hope we can find it.3
1 I am not sure why North Korea having an ICBM capable to hitting the U.S. is the defining problem. They already have missiles that can hit Japan and U.S. military basis in Japan. That seems enough to me.
2 Iran’s situation is different. Even if the agreement we have with them limits their nuclear program and their missile program (it seems a little doubtful on the latter [see here and here]), they may have reasonably that they are big enough that it is very unlikely the U.S. would attack them even if they don’t have nuclear weapons.
3 Richard Nixon and the George H.W. Bush administration probably could have done it. I am sure Barack Obama thinks he could have, but he’s wrong.