Jeffrey Lewis is the rare scholar who combines the ability to write engagingly with knowledge of national security. His piece in a recent Washington Post Outlook section explaining “how nuclear war with North Korea would unfold” was an eye-opener. Combining too-plausible accounts of the mercurial leadership in Pyongyang and Washington, the paranoia of mid-level military officers, and the clumsy use of military exercises and bluster for the purpose of signaling, Lewis sketched a hypothetical scenario in 2019 in which a:
direct hit on Manhattan killed more than 1 million people. An additional 300,000 perished near Washington. The strikes on Jupiter (Florida) and Pearl Harbor each killed 20,000 to 30,000. These were just estimates; the scale of the destruction defied authorities’ ability to account for the dead. Hundreds of thousands perished in South Korea and Japan from the combination of the blasts and fires.
[I]n the end, officials concluded, nearly 2 million Americans, South Koreans and Japanese had died in the completely avoidable nuclear war of 2019.
How in the world do we find ourselves in a situation where the above is possible, and why can’t we find a way out?
Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump have had little answer to the problem, and each of them has watched it get worse. Even Trump’s National Security Strategy congratulates the administration in uncharacteristically meek fashion for “rallying the world against the rogue regime in North Korea.”
The debate in Washington over What to Do About North Korea has two sides: those who think bluster and the threat of war will either cause Kim Jong-un to slouch and accept an unfavorable diplomatic outcome (or possibly produce a war that will eliminate the regime), and those who favor backing away from the war option and trying a new diplomatic course.
Lewis’ article (and Barry Posen’s piece in the New York Times two days before) should dispel any notion that war would be something worth pursuing. Posen’s piece makes clear that in any scenario other than a U.S. nuclear first strike against Pyongyang–and possibly even then–the North Koreans could likely see us coming, as a consequence of the complexity and scale of a preventive war. If they saw us coming, they have an array of options at their disposal, including the possibility of a nuclear strike on the United States. As tiresome as it sounds, there is no military option that looks sane.
Others favor redoubling diplomatic efforts. To this approach’s credit, hundreds of thousands of people would not die in the first few days of a diplomatic effort. To its demerit, it is tough to see how there is any diplomatic breakthrough to be had.
The first and most obvious obstacle is President Trump’s Twitter account. Milder diplomatic objectives with easier customers than the North Koreans have proved terribly difficult to achieve, and required painstaking, delicate diplomacy over a course of months. It is difficult to imagine someone with Trump’s temperament and love for Twitter shepherding such a process forward.
But even if he became a Buddhist luddite, Trump would have difficulty fixing the problem diplomatically. Pain me though it does to admit, the Beltway consensus here is correct: China is the key to denuclearizing the peninsula. It’s impossible to imagine a scenario in which Beijing doesn’t play the decisive role.
This has led a number of observers, including my old colleague Doug Bandow, to suggest sweetening the deal for the Chinese: help us verifiably denuclearize North Korea, and we’ll remove our troops from South Korea. This is a much better deal than what Washington usually offers China–help us verifiably denuclearize North Korea, and we’ll be really thankful–but I suspect even this isn’t good enough.
First, there is the Chinese concern about a North Korean collapse. If the Chinese began squeezing Pyongyang progressively harder, it is possible that at some point that pressure would cause the regime to implode. North Korean refugees would flood over the border into China, by the tens if not hundreds of thousands, in short order. This would impose economic, social, and security costs for Beijing. And unless the Americans unilaterally removed all of their troops first, China could face a scenario where refugees are flowing over its border, North Korea is in chaos, and across the next border is American-allied South Korea with 30,000 U.S. troops on its territory. That’s not a nuclear war, but U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula absent the North Korean buffer state is pretty close to worst-case for Beijing.
And even if the Chinese could delicately apply pressure just steadily enough to produce a change of heart in Pyongyang, the question of sequencing is likely to be intractable. How would the Americans leave? Who would be in charge of verifying the North’s denuclearization, and to what standard? When American hawks inevitably begin complaining about the pace and scale of North Korean compliance, what then? Why should the Chinese trust a Trump administration that listened to John Bolton on Iran?
My own preferred course, trying a variation of the Bandow moonshot while preparing to unilaterally tell the South Koreans that the time has come for them to decide how they’d like to deal with their neighbor to the North on their own, carries its own downsides. Namely: political infeasibility, and the prospect that as the risk of a war on the peninsula involving the United States went down, the prospect of a war on the peninsula absent the United States could go up.
“We’re probably just doomed on this one” isn’t a great title for a think tank paper or op-ed. It doesn’t rally the troops, or wind up the donors, or offer an easy political win for those in power. But clarity and candor carry their own virtues. Instead of insisting that more diplomacy or military coercion hold much promise, Washington would do well to spend more time considering how we wound up in this mess to begin with–and how to avoid it the next time.