It’s all too understandable that the stunning announcement of a possible summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has triggered a torrent of comment and speculation about a series of critical details. And they’re all important, including:
>identifying the exact preconditions;
>figuring out how to verify that North Korea is abiding by them;
>determining whether more groundwork should have been laid at lower government levels by both sides before the leaders meet in person;
>evaluating whether Pyongyang’s interest in talks differs from previous such offers;
>more specifically, assessing whether Kim’s move stems from offensive considerations (like splitting the U.S.-South Korea alliance) or defensive (seeking relief from sanctions that may be starting to bite deeply);
>mapping out a strategy for talks assuming that the summit doesn’t produce a comprehensive agreement; and deciding how to foster genuine North Korean denuclearization.
Nonetheless, none of these issues should distract American leaders from what remains their overriding priority – realizing that the North’s major progress toward developing nuclear weapons that can strike the United States has fundamentally changed America’s paramount interest in the region.
As I’ve written in many previous posts, before Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program reached this stage, it was reasonable (though not without major dangers) for the United States to focus on deterring a North Korean conventional military attack on South Korea, and to stick tens of thousands of American troops in harm’s way on the peninsula to convince the North that any such move would trigger a devastating U.S. nuclear response. The simple reason: This strategy posed no risk to the American homeland.
Now that North Korea apparently is on the verge of being able credibly to threaten the United States with nuclear attack, America’s ongoing strategy is exposing the nation to one of the worst catastrophes imaginable, and for stakes that to me are impossible to justify – the security of a medium-sized country located halfway around the world. Unless you think Kim ultimately hopes to conquer all of East Asia, or bring it under his sway? Or even the Western Hemisphere?
That’s why I keep insisting that the only sensible move for the United States is to pull the troops out, let the wealthy, powerful countries of the region deal with North Korea however they wish, and thereby completely remove any plausible reason for Kim even to threaten nuclear weapons use against the United States, much less follow through if a conflict breaks out.
In fairness, the more serious threat evidently alarming supporters of the American policy status quo is that such a U.S. withdrawal from the scene is that Asia-Pacific countries lose faith in various U.S. defense guarantees it’s enjoyed for decades, look to China to rein in Kim and maintain peace and stability in the region, and let China write the rules for doing business in this economically dynamic area in ways that largely shut out America.
The obvious rejoinders are:
>It’s already excruciatingly difficult for many American companies and entire industries to compete satisfactorily in the region’s often highly protectionist economies – indeed, for decades, Washington has permitted these inequities to persist precisely out of the (bizarre) fear that pressing for genuinely free trade would antagonize these allies and protectorates;
>whoever sets the framework for trade and other forms of commerce the region, most of its economies will need to access the U.S. market to sustain the exports that have fueled so much of their growth. So (as always) Washington will have all the leverage it needs in economic diplomacy, and will simply need to start using it; and
>however important economic interests are (and I’d be the last to belittle them), it’s unimaginable that, if the security of the entire nation is not at risk in a given situation (which it clearly need not be in the current Korean crisis), any American objectives even begin to compare with the imperative of preventing the nuclear destruction of any major U.S. cities. And if crucial American economic interests can only be protected satisfactorily by courting such nuclear risks, then the country urgently needs a new approach to economics and business.
Incidentally, the one aspect of the apparent (and we need to underscore the continuing uncertainties here) terms under which the summit will take place that deserves greater attention has to do with the seeming North Korean pledge to halt missile testing. I’ve worried that the summit and any subsequent talks could proceed while enabling the North to continue perfecting its nuclear capabilities. For example, despite North Korea’s apparent promise to halt all nuclear-related tests, it doesn’t seem possible to verify that Kim’s scientists have stopped trying to master challenges such as affixing a miniaturized nuclear warhead onto a missile (though reportedly, American intelligence officials believe they’re pretty darned close).
But a missile test freeze at this time does seem especially valuable, given how close Pyongyang appears to be to being able to deliver these weapons across oceans. More such testing is absolutely essential to creating a weapon that could accomplish this goal with high confidence, which presumably (though with North Korea, you never know) Kim would desperately want in a crisis. And verifying a test freeze is pretty easy. The missiles either come out of their silos or they don’t.
So since that’s the North Korea capability that the United States needs most to worry about by far, Pyongyang’s apparent commitment on this front could buy America valuable time. Nonetheless, nuclear risk would remain for the United States, and for reasons that no one taking seriously the principle of “America First” – or anyone other American with their head screwed on right – should tolerate. As a result, I’d still much rather wash America’s hands of this mess and let the locals deal with it.