How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

By Gracy Olmstead

How do you solve the North Korea problem? This question has dominated U.S. foreign policy discussions for years. The hostile little country has long been worrisome to the U.S. and its allies, and former president Barack Obama warned Donald Trump before his inauguration that the country could pose the greatest foreign policy threat of his career.

It looks like Obama may have been right. Despite extensive economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, North Korea continues to advance its military power. On Tuesday, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach American shores. In response, American politicians are asking themselves what do with a North Korea that’s determined to go nuclear.

The first and primary reaction on the part of most U.S. policymakers, of course, has been panic. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told CNN, “If we have to go to war to stop this, we will. If there's a war with North Korea it will be because North Korea brought it on itself, and we're headed to a war if things don't change.”

AEI Fellow Marc Thiessen argued in the Washington Post that Trump should declare North Korea “a ballistic missile ‘no-fly zone’ and a nuclear weapons ‘no-test zone.’”

“Any attempt by North Korea to launch a ballistic missile will be met with a targeted military strike either taking out the missile on the launch pad or blowing it up in the air using missile defense technology,” he argued. “And any attempt to test a nuclear weapon will be met with a targeted strike taking out the test site and other related nuclear facilities.”

North Korea is an oppressive and dictatorial country, one that has committed a plethora of human rights atrocities against its citizens, and one that uses propaganda and antagonism to anger its opponents on the world stage. It is not the sort of country we’d like to have nuclear capabilities.

That said, calling for war or military strikes is an dangerous response to North Korea’s missile launch. U.S. resources and presence in the region are already considerable, and have even strained relations with China in the past. Attempting to overthrow or undermine North Korea’s regime could have massive implications for China, South Korea, and North Korea’s vulnerable citizenry. In this instance, preventive military action would likely result in a bevy of unintended consequences.

North Korea, after all, is acting in its own interests. It sees the U.S. and South Korea as a threat to its sovereignty, and often acts in response to the two countries’ military exercises in the region. China has warned that isolation and coercive tactics are unlikely to convince Kim Jong-Un, whose goal is and always will be the preservation of his regime.

Thus, at some point, it becomes necessary for the U.S. to ask the important question: What if North Korea is a nuclear power, and we just have to deal with it?

It’s not a popular view, but it may be the most practical. If we can live with a nuclear China and Russia, after all, surely we can consider a similar stance toward North Korea—and save ourselves the catastrophic consequences likely to be created by war with the nation.

Ironically enough, “American might”-espouser Max Boot has suggested just this stating, “We can live with a nuclear North Korea just as we live with nuclear Russia and China. Would have been nice to avert nuclearization…but in N Korea it’s too late.”

While it’s impossible to know exactly why Kim Jong-Un has built up his country’s nuclear capabilities, it’s unlikely that he wants to start a nuclear war with the United States. As David E. Sanger recently noted for the New York Times:

There is no evidence that Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s current leader, or his father or grandfather, ever contemplated getting into a direct nuclear exchange with the United States. Depending on whose estimates one believes, North Korea has 20 to 60 nuclear weapons; the United States has more than 1,500 currently deployed, and thousands more in storage. It would be, as one senior American military strategist put it a few weeks ago, a case of assisted suicide.

However, what is certain is that Kim Jong-Un wants the world—and perhaps the United States in particular—to take him seriously. President Trump has leaned toward belligerence and bellicosity in his dealings with North Korea, opting for a foreign policy stance that’s more about muscle and bravado than it is about diplomacy or détente. This is exactly the sort of diplomatic approach that Kim Jong-Un likes to match tit for tat. As Trump has escalated his “tough guy” rhetoric in recent months, Kim Jong-Un has responded in kind.

Thus, “maximum pressure” will not work with North Korea. The U.S. must instead consider a strategy that acknowledges North Korea’s purpose and personality—and one that inspires confidence and respect in our allies, most especially South Korea, whose confidence in us seems to have been shaken by recent events.

As Daniel Larison recently argued for The American Conservative:

The U.S. and its allies have lived with far larger threats from nuclear-armed adversaries for decades (and still live with them), and the threat from North Korea can be similarly managed and deterred. Our culture of threat inflation has made North Korea’s acquisitions of these technologies seem far more frightening than they have to be, but we need to stop panicking over this and begin thinking carefully about how to adapt to the new reality.

Although a nuclear North Korea is far from ideal, crescendo-ing into panic mode will not serve U.S. interests abroad. Trump and the GOP must consider the dangerous ramifications of their belligerent stance toward North Korea, before it’s too late.

Gracy Olmstead is a fellow at Defense Priorities, and a writer and journalist located outside Washington, DC. She's written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

This piece was originally published by The Week on December 5, 2017. Read more HERE.