By Charles V. Peña
In the high stakes poker game between the U.S. and North Korea, President Trump recently warned that, "“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States." Otherwise, it would "be met with fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before." Rather than backing down, North Korea chose to up to ante by announcing that it was "carefully examining" a plan to attack Guam.
But we don't need to keep threatening North Korea and risk military confrontation because we aren't faced with a false binary choice of North Korea nuking a U.S. city or us having to take military action to prevent that from happening. Just as it was against the former Soviet Union–– that had thousands of nuclear weapons targeting the U.S.––during the Cold War, deterrence and containment are viable and realistic options.
First and foremost, North Korea is not a direct military threat to America. The United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) is more than 300 times larger than North Korea's––over $14 trillion compared $40 billion. The U.S. Department of Defense budget itself is more than 10 times the size of North Korea’s economy and some 50 times more than North Korea’s military expenditures. North Korea’s army is substantial––estimated at more than 1 million active duty personnel–– but it is not a power projection force capable of bridging the Pacific Ocean to attack America.
Yes, North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and has tested missiles that could––if flown on a different trajectory––conceivably reach the United States. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, North Korea has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles. But Pyongyang has yet to successfully flight test a missile at intercontinental range, i.e., thousands of miles, with such a payload. The farthest they've flown a missile is more than 600 miles into the Sea of Japan.
But even if Kim Jong-un is able to target the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, he must still face the reality of a vastly superior U.S. strategic nuclear force.
To provide some perspective: North Korea is now believed to have as many as 60 nuclear warheads compared to more than 1,400 U.S. strategic nuclear warheads actively deployed on ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers. In other words, if Kim Jong-un attacked the United States, he would face the prospect of overwhelming retaliation and utter destruction and annihilation.
Certainly, Kim Jong-un is temperamental and not shy about resorting to violence to rid himself of those he sees as rivals to his hold on power. Both Stalin and Mao were considered crazy and irrational in their time, yet they were deterred by the same reality Kim Jong-un faces. In other words, Kim Jong-un would have to be suicidal to launch a nuclear weapon against the United States.
Moreover, we automatically assume that North Korea's motivation is to attack the U.S., yet the Kim dynasty has repeatedly demonstrated that it's larger interest is its own survival and perpetuating the regime.
Kim Jong-un is no different than his father or grandfather. If his largest fear is U.S.-imposed regime change, then nuclear weapons are a tool to deter such action. After all, Kim Jong-un saw what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi––both of whom did not have nuclear weapons and were targets of regime change.
Just as importantly, South Korea is more than capable of defending itself. The Cold War has been over for more than 25 years, and South Korea’s economy has grown over the last four decades from being comparable to the poorer countries of Africa to the trillion dollar club. Samsung is the world's largest manufacturer of televisions, mobile phones, and memory chips, and Hyundai is the world’s third largest automobile manufacturer. In other words, South Korea is a rich country more than capable of paying for its own security needs. By comparison, North Korea is a much poorer country with a GDP akin to Wyoming or Vermont––the two smallest states in terms of the size of their economies.
Rather than walking down a path to inevitable conflict, the current crisis in Korea is a long overdue a wake-up call and opportunity to reassess U.S. policy.
The simple truth is that U.S. security does not hinge on the security and stability of the Korean peninsula. In the absolute worst case of South Korea falling to a North Korean invasion, the reality is that America would still be safe because North Korea is not a global expansionist power that threatens the United States. That does not mean that the United States has no interest in fostering political stability in the region and containing North Korea, especially with the vast amount of commerce at stake in the region. But those interests can be better served by South Korea and other countries in the neighborhood–– including Japan and China––working together to create regional security to contain North Korea. After all, North Korea is a greater threat to them than the U.S. and they have the most to lose.
And instead of keeping more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as a tripwire that would automatically force the United States into war if current tensions escalated to actual armed conflict between the two Koreas, the United States could act as an offshore balancer of last resort––responding only if South Korea and other countries in the region were unable to halt North Korean aggression and such aggression jeopardized U.S. national security.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than twenty-five 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 Business Insider on August 14, 2017. Read more HERE.