The View From Olympus: Misdefining the North Korea Problem

President Donald Trump is reported to be frustrated by the lack of good military options for dealing with the North Korea problem. This is not the fault of the U.S. military. It stems from an inescapable military reality: geography. Seoul, South Korea’s capital and most important city, lies close by the North Korean border. North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces, both guns and rocket launchers, within range of Seoul. If the U.S. takes any military action against North Korea, intended to delay or destroy its nuclear and long-range rocket programs, North Korea can roll those artillery pieces out of their caves and revetments, bombard Seoul for, say, 20 minutes, then roll them back in before we can attack them from the air. Then its our move: do we reply by starting an all out Korean war? What else can we do? We’re back to the current situation where all military options are bad.

But saying that all military options are bad is not the same thing as saying we have no good options. There is a diplomatic option that can get us out of our current frustrating situation.

To see that diplomatic option, we must first understand that we are misdefining the North Korea problem. The problem is not that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to mount on ICBMs that will be able to hit American cities. Britain, France, and Israel all have submarine-launched missiles that can hit American cities with nuclear warheads. We don’t lose much sleep worrying about those weapons. Why? Because we have good relations with Britain, France, and Israel. If we were to develop good relations with North Korea, its missiles and nuclear weapons would not worry us any more, for the same reason. In other words, the problem is a policy and diplomatic problem, not a military problem. 

Can we develop good relations with North Korea?  It is certainly worth trying. There is no reason to think that Kim Jong-Un is irrational.  His primary objective is to remain ruler of North Korea. So long as the United States is his most dangerous enemy, that means deterring any American military action designed to unseat him. The best way to do that, from his perspective, is to be able to put a few nuclear weapons on American cities. That is a rational calculation.

Were we instead to offer to normalize relations with North Korea, his calculation should change. With the U.S. no longer a threat, he would have the option of stabilizing his rule by improving North Koreans standard of living. China shows that doing so can legitimize a ruling class.

Under its new president, South Korea would probably welcome an attempt by the U.S. to normalize its relations with North Korea. North Korea, in turn, is facing a disastrous drought and potential famine. It has every incentive to accept an American offer that would include substantial food aid. 

Donald Trump was elected President to bring change to Washington. He has said he would be willing to sit down with Kim Jong-Un over a hamburger and talk. When the Cold War ended, the Korean peninsula lost all strategic meaning for the United States. There is no reason we should have American troops stationed there. Normalizing relations with North Korea would lessen our international liabilities, save us billions of dollars annually, take thousands of American troops and dependents out of harms way, and make North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs irrelevant to us. 

It is not true that we have no good options in North Korea. We have a good option. Can the Trump White House look beyond the military options that have become America’s first choice in all situations? It was elected in part to do so. Before we find ourselves in a disastrous war, President Trump should call Kim Jong-Un and see what he likes on his hamburger.

2 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: Misdefining the North Korea Problem”

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