North Korea Is A Nuclear Power. Deal With It.
You can admit you have an addiction or lose your family.
You can get divorced or live a lie.
You can amputate your leg or die of gangrene.
If you let certain problems fester and grow long enough, you eventually find yourself facing a binary choice, where Option A is terrible, and Option B is unthinkable.
Thats what the North Korea crisis is. Option A is learning to live with a nuclear North Korea. Option B is using force to eliminate them as a threat. So, what do you do when forced to choose between the terrible and the unthinkable?
Thats easy. You take terrible every time. Because terrible is still less terrible than unthinkable. And the possibility of (another) war between the United States and North Korea is truly unthinkable, for all sorts of reasons.
Absolutely nothing if youre waging it against North Korea.
North Korean officials may boast about their confidence in victory should the United States ever attack, but their actual strength is laughable. On paper (and, presumably, in real life) the US will crush them every time.
North Korea has the fourth-largest standing army in the world, but that army is poorly equipped and, worse, poorly fed. Dietary deficiencies are obvious when you compare a North Korean to a South Korean; the average Northerner is 1-3 inches shorter than a Southerner, the result of malnutrition.
North Korea almost certainly has some capacity to deliver a short or medium-range nuclear payload, but the US has some capacity to shoot their missiles out of the sky - or to disrupt them before they even launch.
With 77 times North Korea's annual defence budget at its disposal, the American military far surpasses anything Kim Jong-un can pull out of his fannypack. A US-South Korea alliance would obliterate him in the field. But it could only do so at tremendous human cost.
Seoul,the capital of South Korea, is only 35 miles from the border. That places a city of 10 million people within range of North Koreas old-fashioned artillery pieces, which are dug-in and camouflaged.
They dont need ballistic missiles or nuclear warheads to kill hundreds of thousands of people. They could do it with Cold War era technology, and theres no way to stop them.
Even if you could launch a pre-emptive strike that was certain to wipe out the majority of the artillery, the North Koreans would likely rain fire on Seoul as soon as they knew you were coming. There would be hundreds of thousands of casualties before you landed a punch. And that would just be the beginning of the bloodshed.
Which brings us to…
Absolutely no one if youre waging it against North Korea.
Neither South Korea - Americas ally - nor China - Americas rival - want a war between North Korea and the United States.
The collapse of the Kim dynasty would send millions of refugees north into China, a scenario Beijing dreads. It would also ultimately mean a unified Korea under the auspices of western-style democracy and capitalism, which China would not smile on.
These are two of the major reasons why the Chinese continue to prop up North Korea, despite their own reservations about the regime. These are also the reasons why China can only ever be expected to rein in their mad dog ally so far.
South Korea - a democratic ally of the United States - would fare even worse in a confrontation with the North, since they could suffer an estimated 20,000 casualties per day. After the war is over, they would also be the ones forced to confront the impenetrable challenge of reuniting a country divided by ideology, wealth, education, and culture for 72 years.
A war with North Korea would also threaten Japan, which is definitely within range of Kim Jong-uns missiles. This means any confrontation would immediately endanger two major US allies and millions of their civilians.
By the way, how many North Koreans do you suppose would die in this cataclysm? Too often, we imagine these people as, well, not people. Theyre presented either as brainwashed automatons, or as enablers of a despotic god-king.
But theyre human beings. They didnt ask to be born under the worlds most volatile dictatorship. Even if they had, would that justify killing millions of them? Because thats what war and the ensuing chaos would likely accomplish.
Absolutely never if youre waging it against North Korea.
Its possible, of course, that Kim Jong-un could himself instigate a war with the United States - by invading South Korea, say. But that possibility is remote.
Kim Jong-un may be a clinical case, but he doesnt appear to be insane. Actually, the fact that he wants nuclear weapons might be the best evidence that he has some grasp of reality; at least he understands that the only way he can compel the nations of the world to acknowledge him is through fear.
But instigating war with Kim is truly unthinkable. It would put American allies - and the 37,000 US troops stationed in South Korea - at risk. It would likely cost millions of lives. It would create lasting instability in the region, and (further) tarnish the reputation of the United States.
So lets take a closer look at the terrible option: living with a nuclear North Korea. What would that that mean?
Well, it would solidify the position of the Kim regime, with all its incessant sabre-rattling and human rights abuses. It may incentivize non-nuclear states like South Korea and Japan to create their own nuclear programs. It may force the United States to invest in more reliable missile defence systems to protect its allies and itself.
So, yeah, pretty terrible. But compared to inciting a war that could kill millions, it sounds downright tolerable.
Some people dont want to admit it, but nuclear deterrence has worked. Thats why there was never a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, notwithstanding the instability and aggression of that country.
In fact, the fear of armageddon aroused by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 eventually led to nuclear test bans and arms limitation agreements that helped bring the US and USSR back from the brink.
If you think the North Koreans are too irrational to understand mutually assured destruction, then why havent they invaded South Korea yet? Their stated objective has always been to reunite the peninsula under their rule. If they dont understand consequences, why havent they made good on their word?
Its because they do understand consequences. Kim doesnt want nukes so he can use them; he wants them so the world will be afraid that he might. He knows that any strike on the United States would be revenged a thousandfold.
Accepting the fact that he has nuclear weapons doesn't mean doing nothing about it. It just means resolving not to use force, and committing instead to ramp down tensions via diplomacy.
Of course, wed all rather live in a less terrible world, one where men like Kim Jong-un dont have the power to wipe out nations on a whim.
Please let me know if you find one.