The more the circumstances surrounding the North Korea nuclear crisis change, the more they remain fundamentally the same – and that includes the dramatic recent news that President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un have decided to hold the first ever meeting between the top leaders of the two countries presumably to energize efforts to reach some kind of negotiated solution. As a result, it’s still the case, as I’ve argued repeatedly, that America’s only sane course of action is not to plunge even more deeply into the potentially deadly affairs of this far-off peninsula. It’s to disengage, especially militarily, and let North Korea’s big, wealthy neighbors deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear forces any way they wish.
Before the historic announcement of the Trump-Kim summit – which is far from certain actually to be held – the case for U.S. disengagement was growing more compelling by the day. The North’s rapid progress toward building a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike targets in the continental United States meant that America’s decades-old strategy of deterring Northern aggression against the South had become dangerously obsolete. Before North Korea had reached this stage, this U.S. defense guarantee was risk-free for the American homeland. Because Pyongyang could pose no threat to the United States itself, Washington could even safely afford to station nearly 30,000 combat troops directly in harm’s way in South Korea literally to trap a President into using nuclear weapons to defend the South against attack from the North and its superior non-nuclear military. And precisely because of America’s nuclear weapons monopoly, the promise was supremely credible.
With that monopoly nearly gone, the tables are turning completely. Once the North gains reasonably reliable intercontinental nuclear attack capability, America’s policy will become one of risking the complete destruction of U.S. cities for the security of another country – and a relatively unimportant one at that. And since even the landing of a single warhead one such a target would create a catastrophe never even remotely approached in American history, the current U.S. strategy will become completely non-credible. Even worse, however: As long as such a large American military force remains in South Korea, a U.S. President still may have no real choice but to proceed down the nuclear road – or accept mass American military casualties inflicted by a North Korean invasion.
It’s entirely possible that the big new twist in this story could wind up bringing the United States (and South Korea and East Asia in general) the best of all possible worlds: a verifiably denuclearized North and the preservation of American security alliances that Washington has long prized (with little evidence to be sure) as guarantors of decisive American influence in this economically vibrant region. President Trump’s stance toward the North is indeed a striking contrast to the can-kicking Obama posture of “strategic patience,” and a case can be made that the new administration’s combination of stronger military threats and economic sanctions has convinced the North that its historic truculence and defiance has become too risky. In this vein, it’s also possible that, as erratically as he’s often acted, Kim is a North Korean leader with a difference – specifically, one who significantly values his country’s economic well-being and who might be willing to trade some regained access to the world economy for his nuclear arsenal.
Sadly, it’s at least as easy to make the case that Kim will never give up his nuclear weapons (because he views them as his best guarantor of survival given the United States’ recent record of miltarily deposing other despots like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi), and that a U.S. administration ardently desiring the semblance of diplomatic victory will accept a compromise that leaves at least much of Kim’s nuclear arsenal in place, that provides valuable economic support for his regime, and that leaves at least many of the American forces in harm’s way in Korea. But this outcome would simply leave the United States in the same position as today – hostage to events in a region retaining far too many powder keg characteristics, and vulnerable to entrapment in a nuclear war if its reading of Kim and his ultimate intentions isn’t largely accurate.
Alternatively, President Trump could well continue insisting on full, verifiable denuclearization by the North, end or suspend negotiations if he’s persuaded that he’s getting conned, tighten the sanctions further in the hope that they’ll ultimately push Kim to accept U.S. terms – and even resume talk of preventive attack to (try to) make sure that the North never finishes building nuclear weapons that can be used against the America’s homeland or any of its territories, or simply to coerce greater cooperation from the North. Of course, this outcome would also leave the United States in substantially the same perilous position as at present.
As a result, the only way to drive down the risk of nuclear attack from North Korea to an acceptable level – and to enable Washington to run this risk in the first place as a matter of choice and not necessity (in order to save the troops deployed in the South) – is to pull those troops out ASAP, or by some date certain.
As I’ve noted, continued nuclear progress could still bring North Korea the ability to attack the United States with these weapons. But with the United States playing no military role in his backyard, why would it do so? Moreover, although in these circumstances an American promise to defend the South with nuclear weapons lacks would lack needed credibility (because of America’s own vulnerability), an American promise to defend itself with these devices would be supremely credible.
U.S. disengagement would indeed leave North Korea’s neighbors with many of these dangerous dilemmas. But because they’re neighbors, they have far greater stakes in dealing with them successfully than the distant United States. And because they’re among the world’s leading powers (China, Japan, and Russia, as well as South Korea), they surely have ample capabilities, or at least potential, to meet the North Korea challenge.
Are they guaranteed to succeed? Absolutely not. In fact, as supporters of the U.S. policy status quo keep insisting, an American withdrawal could destabilize the region, and even trigger conflict. But the real choices facing the United States are not between the good and the bad, but between the bad and the worse. And when the worse carries any significant possibility of a nuclear attack on American soil, the call shouldn’t even be close.