Home National Politics Thinking Through the North Korea Crisis (First Installment)

Thinking Through the North Korea Crisis (First Installment)


This is the first installment of a series of three pieces that will be running shortly in one or more newspapers my area of Virginia (VA-06). Most of my writings in these newspapers are op/ed pieces, most of which are intended to challenge the conservatives of the region. This series is different: its non-partisan intent is to provide a framework for clarifying the issues that American policy-makers should be thinking through in deciding what to do about a long-standing, extremely dangerous foreign policy problem that is reaching a point of decision.


The long-running problem with North Korea is coming to a head—either very soon, or in the not-too-distant future. What follows is my attempt at a non-political, non-partisan explication of the key questions.

Two questions present themselves from the outset: 1) What is the best way for the United States to deal with the problem of North Korea and the nuclear threat it poses? And 2) Is President Trump’s present approach a good way to achieve the desired outcome?

I don’t claim to know the answer to either question, which is why my presentation of the issues here has no agenda – no partisan agenda – other than to seek to provide clarity about the questions that need to be asked in order to arrive at sound policy.

I’m imagining walking into a room of experts in all the different areas relevant to evaluating the North Korean situation, e.g. experts on the various military issues, on the North Korean regime, on the interests and behavior of the Chinese government, on the history of nuclear deterrence.

(I have some experience conducting such discussions back in the 1980s when I worked in national security circles.)

Is There an Alternative to the Two Dangerous Alternatives We Can See?

To frame the discussion, I might begin this way:

“For a quarter century, American presidents have sought to prevent North Korea from gaining the ability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, and to prevent this without resorting to war. One major hope has been that the North Korean regime might disappear before the threat materialized. But the regime remains, and its nuclear and missile programs have continued to progress. Now, we are quickly approaching the North Koreans’ possessing that dreaded capability of hitting not only our allies in the region, but even the American mainland with nuclear weapons.

“Which leads me to ask you two questions: Is there any alternative solution besides either 1) accepting that North Korea will have that capability or 2) launching a war to destroy that threat? And if there is no such alternative solution, which of those two is better – or least bad – for serving the full range of American national interests?”

Someone doubtless will suggest that alternatives do exist, or might exist: 1) Perhaps we can intimidate the North Koreans into relinquishing their nuclear-strike capability. 2) Perhaps we can induce the Chinese at last to bring to bear their full leverage on North Korea in order to pressure the North Koreans into backing down.

The idea that we can intimidate the North Koreans brings to my mind what I heard an intelligence analyst say the other day on TV: “The North Koreans have proven they’re not very good at being intimidated.” So I would ask the expert who proposed that possibility:

“Given that the North Koreans, over the years, have responded to every threat by becoming even more bellicose, and not by moderating their posture, what reason do we have to believe that any threat we might pose would get them to back down?”

I’d listen carefully to the response, but I am not now able to see how a case can be made for the possibility of resolving the crisis by American intimidation of the North Korean regime.

Which might then bring up the question of whether President Trump’s recent moves indicate that he believes he can intimidate the North Koreans. In quick succession, he has sent cruise missiles into Syria, dropped our biggest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan – both of which might be intended as warnings directed at the Korean crisis – and, more directly, sent a naval armada to the seas around Korea.

Someone is likely to suggest that all that sabre-rattling was not directed at North Korea, but at China.

It has long been said that it is China that has by far the most leverage over North Korea, and that the Chinese have been reluctant to use it. One reason for that reluctance is that they don’t want to have to deal with the chaos that would result if the North Korean regime collapsed. But perhaps Trump is raising the specter of a war that would create chaos even worse for the Chinese as a means to get them to lean harder on the North Koreans.

(to be continued in two more installments)

In the 1980s, Andy Schmookler was tasked with distilling the views of foreign policy experts at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs (CSIS) in Washington, and interviewed experts for a project at the Public Agenda Foundation about how to find security in an age of nuclear weapons. In the 1990s, he was hired by the U.S. Army to help think through some particular issues concerning weapons of mass destruction. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.



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