Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The North Korean Dilemma

North Korea (DRK) has nuclear weapons and the technology to deliver them to Japan and even Guam. Within a year or two — or even sooner — it is probable that they will have the technology to strike the United States mainland with a nuclear weapon

This should not be surprising. They have been testing weapons underground for several years and powerful rockets for at least the same length of time.

The US is now faced with a different power balance than existed in east Asia ten years ago. It is as though the DRK traded a pawn for a knight, maybe even a queen, on the East Asian chessboard. Suddenly our strategic options have narrowed, especially with respect to attacking the DRK with the purpose of eliminating its nuclear weapons, because the North Koreans have stationed a massive artillery force on the demilitarized zone just a short distance from Seoul and could bombard it to rubble in a short time.

To make it edgier, the leaders of the U.S. and the DRK, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, lack the experience and knowledge to inspire confidence that either one of them would have the abilities to avoid a crisis that could lead to war. Neither side possesses a deep and comprehensive knowledge of the other’s modus operandi, and from the standpoint of an outside observer the two leaders have no desire to understand the other. Such ignorance raises the risk that one side will misinterpret actions by the other as an act of war, or at least the preparation for war.

I had these thoughts after I had read a recent article by Evan Osnos in the September 18, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea. The article is based on the experiences of the author in North Korea in August of this year interviewing officials in the DRK.

There is no point in rehashing the article in this blog post, because I could not do it justice in the time and space I have available to me. Everyone with an interest in the future of the World should read it, however, because North Korea will almost undoubtedly be followed by other nations in pursuit of nuclear weapons. It cannot be lost on the non-nuclear nations that those countries with nuclear weapons have not been attacked by any other nation, whereas a number of non-nuclear nations like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed by the U.S. and its allies.

Osnos ends his article with a succinct statement of the dilemma that both the U.S. and the DRK now face:

In 1966, Thomas Schelling, the deterrence expert, wrote that brinkmanship hinges, above all, on “beliefs and expectations.” Our grasp of North Korea’s beliefs and expectations is not much better than its grasp of ours. To go between Washington and Pyongyang at this nuclear moment is to be struck, most of all, by how little the two understand each other. In eighteen years of reporting, I’ve never felt as much uncertainty at the end of a project, a feeling that nobody—not the diplomats, the strategists, or the scholars who have devoted their lives to the subject—is able to describe with confidence how the other side thinks. We simply don’t know how Kim Jong Un really regards the use of his country’s nuclear arsenal, or how much North Korea’s seclusion and mythology has distorted its understanding of American resolve. We don’t know whether Kim Jong Un is taking ever-greater risks because he is determined to fulfill his family’s dream of retaking South Korea, or because he is afraid of ending up like Qaddafi.

To some in the Trump Administration, the gaps in our knowledge of North Korea represent an argument against deterrence; they are unwilling to assume that Pyongyang will be constrained by the prospect of mutually assured destruction. But, if the alternative is a war with catastrophic costs, then gaps in our knowledge should make a different case. Iraq taught us the cost of going to war against an adversary that we do not fully understand. Before we take a radical step into Asia, we should be sure that we’re not making that mistake again.