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How to live with the North’s nukes

As most realistic policy makers understand, a problem like North Korea gets managed, not solved.
Aug 17,2017
Donald Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea as punishment for its military provocations is the epitome of irresponsible leadership. By invoking the prospect of apocalyptic destruction, Trump risks alienating U.S. allies, distracting attention from North Korean misbehavior and escalating an already fraught situation.

Yet even if the United States wasn’t led by such an amateurish president, the North Korean crisis wouldn’t necessarily be easier to resolve. The standoff is driven most fundamentally not by the behavior of any single leader, but by the unresolvable dilemmas of U.S. strategy in the nuclear age.

The core problem, rarely discussed openly, is that Washington has sought for several decades to do something very difficult: prevent sovereign states from acquiring weapons that they feel will guarantee their security. This challenge is all the harder because the technology needed to develop a nuclear warhead and mount it on a missile is not particularly sophisticated.

Nuclear weapons are 1940s-era technology; miniaturized warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles are 1950s and ’60s-era innovations. If a country is willing to invest the time and money, brave the international opprobrium and bear the associated costs — including the ire of the United States — it can acquire a deliverable bomb. China did so in the 1960s despite being one of the world’s most economically backward and mismanaged states. North Korea is managing a similar feat today.

This conundrum has not stopped the United States from trying to check nuclear proliferation over the past 70 years. Washington helped create the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in the 1960s and has provided security guarantees to threatened allies who might otherwise be tempted to build the bomb. It has invested enormous military resources in making these promises credible, and applied sanctions and other pressure to dissuade both enemies and friends alike from seeking nuclear weapons. It even cooperated with the Soviet Union to prevent West Germany from going nuclear.

This concerted effort to slow nuclear proliferation has been an enduring theme of American strategy since the dawn of the atomic age. What motivates it? U.S. officials have long feared that nuclear proliferation will raise the chances of nuclear war. They have worried the spread of nuclear weapons will undermine U.S. alliances by allowing American adversaries to inflict unacceptable damage on American forces or the U.S. homeland if Washington comes to an ally’s defense. Not least, American policy makers have worried the nation’s diplomatic influence and military freedom of action will be undermined in a world in which more states possess the absolute military equalizer.

U.S. policy has proven quite successful, if costly, over time. In the early 1960s, President John Kennedy predicted that 15 to 20 states might have nuclear weapons within another decade. More than 50 years later, the number is only nine, in no small part because of the lengths to which Washington has gone to keep that club small and exclusive.

But as effective as this strategy has been, it has always had limits. In particular, the United States has never been especially good at dealing with the hardest cases, countries whose leadership believes that nuclear deterrence represents the only reliable option for national defense and regime survival — and has therefore been willing to build the bomb no matter the cost.

Many of these countries — the Soviet Union of Stalin and Khrushchev, Mao’s China, the Kims’ North Korea — were the quintessential rogue states of their times, driven by radical ideologies, an utter disregard for human life and an ingrained hostility toward the United States and its allies. And so in each of these cases, American policy makers considered snuffing out the threat once and for all with preventive strikes, in the theory that military action now would be better than waiting until the threat became more acute.

But in each case, U.S. officials ultimately decided that the costs, including the likely human toll and the moral opprobrium attached to striking first, were ultimately higher than those of living with the problem indefinitely. The United States therefore chose to pursue a policy we might think of as deterrence plus, threatening devastating retaliation should Moscow, Beijing or Pyongyang ever use its nuclear weapons against America or its allies, rather than one of prevention.

A similar calculus ought to prevail today. To be clear, a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile poses painful strategic dilemmas because it gives the world’s most repressive and bellicose state the ability to target the U.S. homeland and thus casts doubt on whether Washington will really be willing to defend its allies in a crisis.

That uncertainty, in turn, creates pressure for South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons because it will remind them that the promise at the heart of America’s extended nuclear deterrence — that it will trade Seattle for Seoul, or Portland for Busan — is inherently difficult to believe. The costs of living with a North Korean ICBM are high indeed. The likely costs of a war to destroy North Korean nuclear capabilities, however, are far higher.

This leaves only bad options. Perhaps the U.S. and its allies can negotiate some temporary freeze of North Korea’s missile programs and nuclear tests, purchased through economic or diplomatic concessions or a suspension of U.S.-South Korean military exercises. But such deals with Pyongyang have never held in the past, and so over the long term, Washington will probably have to accept a North Korean ICBM just as it accepted Soviet nuclear capability in the 1940s and a Chinese nuclear threat in the 1960s.

This does not mean there is nothing the United States can do to mitigate that threat. It can increase investment in missile defense. It can pursue counter-force capabilities needed to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear weapons if war breaks out. It can talk seriously with Japan and South Korea on how it might use nuclear weapons in any worst-case scenario. It can increase its deployment of impressive conventional military capabilities in the region. The United States pursued similar policies during the Cold War.

None of this will bring a desirable or conclusive solution to the North Korean nuclear problem, but as most realistic policy makers understand, a problem like the North gets managed, not solved. As dangerous as this crisis is, then, the greatest danger is that President Trump will not have the patience or equanimity to pursue this imperfect approach. His rhetoric will only ratchet up unrealistic expectations that the United States can somehow “win” the current showdown, when in fact Washington should keep its cool.

*Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor at the same school.

Hal Brands, Francis J. Gavin