As I explained last week (not that it’s my insight alone!), America’s leading political pundits enjoy much of their fame (and consequent incomes) to their access to power. Close relations with American and other leaders can turn them into craven establishment mouthpieces when they express their own opinions. But they also enable these commentators to serve as reliable carriers of messages being sent quite deliberately by decision-makers, and by the policy specialists who advise them.
That’s why the latest column from the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer was both encouraging and discouraging when it comes to dealing with the growing nuclear weapons threat from North Korea. The good news, if Krauthammer’s piece is any guide, is that the policy community is finally starting to consider some desperately needed outside-the-box ideas for making sure that U.S. policy doesn’t wind up with Pyongyang destroying an American city or two. The bad news is that these same policy specialists and political leaders still don’t have their arms completely around this intensifying crisis.
Krauthammer’s main point seems to be that the United States still has “major cards” to play both against North Korea and against China, whose help President Trump says he’s counting on heavily to either de-nuclearize the North or somehow contain its weapons program to an acceptable degree. Some of them are pretty innovative and constructive, and per my analysis above, if he’s mentioning them, that’s a strong indication that important conventional thinkers and policymakers are mulling them, too.
For example, Krauthammer observes that Washington could ease many of China’s fears about the consequences of regime change in North Korea (which he describes nicely), and spur decisive pressures by Beijing, by “abjuring Korean reunification. This would not be Germany, where the communist state was absorbed into the West. We would accept an independent, but Finlandized, North Korea.
“During the Cold War, Finland was, by agreement, independent but always pro-Russian in foreign policy. Here we would guarantee that a new North Korea would be independent but always oriented toward China. For example, the new regime would forswear ever joining any hostile alliance.”
For my part, I agree that no significant American interests would be compromised or even affected by such a deal.
Maybe even more significantly, Krauthammer seems to be recommending that the United States suggest to China that, if it doesn’t get on the North Korea stick, South Korea and Japan would likely develop nuclear weapons themselves. As he notes, because of the history of brutal conflicts “The latter is the ultimate Chinese nightmare.”
If I’m right, this Krauthammer point signals that American policy toward Asian security (and possibly European security) could be headed for a highly welcome sea change. After all, as I’ve explained, preventing Japan’s nuclearization in particular has been a central goal of U.S. strategy in Asia since the end of World War II. Because a nuclear Japan, or even a conventionally mighty Japan, was thought too likely to return to its warlike ways, American leaders for decades have insisted on handling the job of defending Japan, and incurring many of the greatest risks – including triggering nuclear conflict.
And as you may remember, when candidate Trump suggested during his campaign for the White House that this approach be rethought, he was hammered by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment – including former President Obama – as a dangerous know-nothing.
So the change Krauthammer could be foreshadowing would represent nothing less than a U.S. foreign policy revolution. It would mean that Washington at long last recognizes that the favorable nuclear balance that for so many years arguably made this policy of “extended deterrence” a reasonable risk is now rapidly changing for the worse. Specifically, as I’ve written, North Korea’s progress toward developing a secure retaliatory force now could be exposing the American homeland to risk that is by definition unacceptable because it’s being borne in order to protect other countries, not the United States itself.
Unfortunately, Krauthammer’s column also may add to the evidence that official and quasi-official thinking on North Korea remains way behind the curve. For example, he seems to recommend that Washington at least implicitly threaten China with the return of American nuclear weapons to South Korea if Beijing doesn’t raise its North Korea game.
Actually, this move would reduce the nuclear threat posed to the United States by war in Korea – by increasing the odds that such a conflict’s nuclear dimension would be confined to the exchange of short-or medium-range weapons whose destructive effects would be limited to the Korean peninsula. North Korea, according to the conventional and, to me, reasonable, wisdom, would continue to be deterred from launching nukes at the United States itself for fear that America would retaliate by using much more powerful intercontinental weapons that could completely annihilate the North (as well as the South).
So what’s the problem? Precisely because it alone would suffer the greatest damage, and precisely because that knowledge would make America likelier to use those short-range weapons in response to an invasion from the North, this strategy has surely become completely unacceptable to South Korea. And you can bet that neighboring Japan isn’t a big fan, either.
The Asian allies would greatly prefer that, if U.S. nuclear weapons are used in a Korean conflict, they be the weapons that shift as many risks as possible to the United States itself – and create the chance that the nuclear dimension of any Korean conflict would be fought literally over their heads. South Korea would also (legitimately) tell the United States that threatening North Korea with instantaneous nuclear destruction if it invades the South is the best way to reduce the chances of that invasion taking place to begin with. In other words, it’s the best way to strengthen deterrence and therefore preserve peace.
I know that for those outside the foreign policy community, these ideas sound completely loony. But they’re exactly the kinds of ideas that had roiled relations between the United States and its allies in Europe for decades, too.
Krauthammer also endorses, at least in principle, the notion of conveying American resolve to the North by shooting down “a North Korean missile in mid-flight to demonstrate both our capacity to defend ourselves and the futility of a North Korean missile force that can be neutralized technologically.”
He’s correct in writing that this option would be safer than a “preemptive attack on North Korea’s nuclear facilities and missile sites [which] would almost surely precipitate an invasion of South Korea with untold millions of casualties.” But what if the shoot-down attempt fails? Wouldn’t that further embolden the North? I sure as heck wouldn’t want to take that chance.
So despite the encouraging signs in Krauthammer’s column, I remain convinced that the Korean crisis is a situation where the only choices for the United States are not between good and bad, or even between bad and worse, but (because of the nuclear dimension) between perversely reckless and downright suicidal. Therefore, U.S. leaders need to capitalize on the only truly decisive asset working on their country’s behalf –America’s great distance from the peninsula – and withdraw as soon as possible the military forces still stationed in South Korea. They have no ability to advance or defend important U.S. interests at acceptable risk, but they have greatly and rapidly increasing ability to drag the nation needlessly into a potentially disastrous conflagration.