By Bonnie Kristian
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: North Korea has tested a new weapon. The United States and assorted allies have responded with strongly worded statements and maybe some show of symbolic military force. The Kim Jong-un regime takes deep and dramatic offense and declares its own enormous superiority. We all briefly consider whether our homes are in a likely target area and, if not, how well we’d fare in a post-apocalyptic economy. And then everything goes back to normal until the North’s next weapons test.
If the scenario sounds familiar, it’s because U.S. tensions with North Korea have settled into this regular pattern of provocation, outrage, and escalation. Pyongyang has fired 17 missiles in 11 tests since President Trump took office, making the outlined script a regular feature of the news cycle. The holding pattern is set.
But what if it isn’t? Serious and repeated reports indicate the Trump White House is reviewing a wide range of options for dealing with North Korea, including forcible regime change entailing, in Trump’s words, “major, major conflict.” The appeal of intervention is obvious if we interpret Pyongyang’s persistence in developing nuclear weapons as a signal that Kim intends to do the unthinkable—to nuke a major urban area in the United States or perhaps South Korea or Japan—but a more sober assessment reveals that interpretation is dangerous and simplistic.
The Kim regime is, of course, appalling in its inhumanity. The good impulses of those who advocate external military intervention to safely free the populace are admirable, though it cannot be reiterated enough that their proposal would almost certainly end in what Defense Secretary James Mattis has called a “catastrophic” war with “the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes.” Kim rules over what is justly called “the rape and defilement of an entire nation, a systematic and refined evil that only the human genius at its most perverted can produce,” and the evidence suggests his main goal is to continue doing so, to continue leading the comfortable (and apparently cheese-obsessed) life of a dictator safe, at least, from external regime change.
A credible nuclear arsenal is his best insurance for that goal. Kim is not suicidal; he is power-mad. Both derangements are dangerous, but they are not the same.
Thus the better way to understand North Korean machinations is as a “huge game of blackmail,” explains Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian. For all its posturing, Bacevich continues, Pyongyang is “an exceedingly weak and arguably very fragile regime” whose “principle objective is to remain in power.”
The point of all these weapons tests and bluster is probably not about actually nuking the American mainland, but rather manipulating far more powerful nations—South Korea, Japan, China, and most importantly the United States—into unwittingly and unwillingly maintaining the status quo in which Kim keeps his power. As seen in this latest test, for example, Kim targets his missiles for the Sea of Japan while avoiding Japanese air space. This lets him make a show of strength which doesn’t actually amount to a concrete threat. It’s a calculated moved intended to protect Kim’s position.A review of the most recent weapons test cycle is instructive. On the 4th of July, the Kim regime triumphantly tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), technology that could theoretically carry a nuclear weapon as far as Alaska (whether it could really carry the weapon is at this point unclear). The test was fêted with a spectacle of tap dance and song in North Korea, but elsewhere reactions were less than celebratory. President Trump warned Pyongyang he’s considering “some pretty severe things” in response to this “very, very bad behavior.”
He conferred with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pledging joint action against North Korea with both. He sent U.S. bombers on a flight—seen by the North as provocative—over the Korean Peninsula. On Twitter, he marveled Kim doesn’t “have anything better to do with his life.”
But the whole point of the test is that Kim does have things he wants to do with his life, namely, to continue being in power.
Kim wants the bomb because he thinks it will “ensure that anyone considering imposing regime change won’t take the risk,” argues Harry J. Kazianis at The Week. He is testing ICBMs on Independence Day because he believes that is how he stays on top of his hermit kingdom.
The lesson here may be a difficult one, but it is not outside Trump’s reach. For all his inconsistency on the subject, Trump has repeatedly expressed an openness toward direct diplomacy with North Korea. “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with [Kim], I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” he said as recently as May.
Whether direct Trump-Kim talks are the wisest course is subject to debate, but Washington must trade saber-rattling for conversation with Pyongyang. That is a critical step in the right direction. The alternative—to continue to the current cycle of escalation without any dialogue—is a dangerous game, making ever more probable the “major, major conflict” no party of this dispute ought to want. That is a road of grave miscalculation and catastrophic result, but it is a road we do not have to take.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by Reason on July 17, 2017. Read more HERE.