By Charles V. Peña
President Trump hailed his historic summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as “a really fantastic meeting.” The two leaders signed a joint statement where “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of China] and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Only time—years, perhaps decades—will tell if denuclearization comes to fruition. The president readily acknowledges it will take time: “We will do it as fast as it can mechanically and physically be done.” Critics—rightfully— point out that the summit was long on pageantry and photo opportunities, but short on substance and details.
Moreover, the Kim regime has been given legitimacy without the U.S. getting much in return. But the larger—and more important—point that’s missed amongst all the chatter is that U.S. national security is not dependent on the outcome of the summit. Whether or not President Trump is actually able to negotiate a deal that results in North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and program, the United States remains secure. What the administration and foreign policy elite refuse to admit is that North Korea—even with nuclear weapons capable of reaching the U.S. homeland—is not an existential threat. As such, denuclearization is not an absolute requirement for U.S. national security. So even if post-summit diplomacy goes nowhere and President Trump cannot convince Kim Jong-un to give up his nukes, preventive war to disarm North Korea is an unnecessary, dangerous tactic.
In July 2017, North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and in November tested a newer ICBM that could reach all of the United States. In August 2017, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that North Korea had produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its ICBMs. So North Korea seems to have mastered the technical know-how to be able to deliver a nuclear warhead on U.S. soil.
Whether Pyongyang has such an operational capability is another question. But even if the DPRK eventually achieves that capability, Kim Jong-un has to face the inescapable reality of deterrence. He knows that if he launched a nuclear weapon against the United States that the U.S. could retaliate with enough force to totally annihilation the regime and country. In other words, any nuclear attack—regardless of how large or small—against the United States would be suicidal. However, the Kim Jong-un (like his father and his father’s father before him) has demonstrated that its larger interest is his own survival and perpetuating regime—not suicide.
If the U.S. could deter the Soviet Union during the Cold War when both countries had several thousand nuclear warheads pointed at each other, North Korea can also be deterred. Moreover, irrational leaders with nuclear weapons—leaders such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong—were successfully deterred.
There is certainly evidence that Kim Jong-un understands deterrence. Despite having a nuclear monopoly over both South Korea and Japan, he has not attacked his non-nuclear neighbors with those weapons. Presumably because he full well understands that the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation hangs over his head.
Kim Jong-un also likely understands that nuclear weapons may be his best bet for deterring regime change. After all, Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons. And Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear ambitions. Both were on the receiving end of U.S.-led regime change. The lesson of the latter for North Korea: "It has been shown to the corners of the earth that Libya's giving up its nuclear arms...was used as an invasion tactic to disarm the country by sugarcoating it with words like 'the guaranteeing of security' and the 'bettering of relations.' Having one's own strength was the only way to keep the peace."
So even Kim Jong-un cannot be convinced to give up his nuclear weapons, it is not cause for panic or alarm. It is certainly not casis belli for preventive war—which would likely result in as many as 10,000 U.S. military killed or wounded and civilian casualties as much as hundreds of thousands based on a Pentagon virtual war game. Indeed a recent survey conducted by the Charles Koch Institute and Real Clear Politics shows that if denuclearization efforts are not successful, military action is the least preferred option and a majority of Americans (62 percent) believe the U.S. should continue diplomatic relations with the DPRK.
In other words, Americans understand that deterrence will continue to work and that continued diplomacy is the best course of action. Status quo is neither better nor worse, but war would be much worse.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on June 13, 2018. Read more HERE.