BRUNSWICK — North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is accelerating his nuclear program with the apparent goal of targeting the U.S. with intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. The most recent North Korean nuclear test appears to be a boosted fission weapon or a hydrogen bomb, representing another significant advance in the nuclear program. Either way, these are city-destroying weapons.

Though we can only speculate about Kim’s motivations, he likely has two interrelated goals: deter a U.S. attack and undermine the U.S.-South Korean alliance. If Americans did not feel it was worth risking the U.S. homeland for the protection of South Korea, the alliance could falter.

North Korea’s nuclear program is anathema to U.S. interests on multiple fronts. A nascent nuclear program like North Korea’s is extremely dangerous in a crisis. This is a different scenario from the Cold War, when both sides maintained a secure second-strike capability. Each side could absorb a nuclear attack and still retaliate. The promise of nuclear retaliation was sufficient to deter a first strike. The North Koreans do not have a second strike capability. In a crisis, this imbalance could give Kim strong incentive to use his nuclear weapons first before the U.S. could destroy them.

Moreover, as described above, North Korean nuclear weapons make alliance management much more difficult for the United States for both South Korea and Japan. Going forward, the United States will have to do more to reassure these allies in both word and deed.

Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program could significantly undermine nuclear nonproliferation efforts. In the past, North Korea has sold nuclear missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan. A regime desperate for funds could sell nuclear technology and material. Another major blow to nonproliferation would occur if Japan or South Korea seek their own nuclear programs. Indeed, today a majority of South Koreans are calling for the return of U.S. tactical weapons to the peninsula.

What’s the solution to North Korean nuclear weapons? President Trump has sought to take advantage of Chinese leverage over Kim. China has long been North Korea’s patron, supplying the hermit country with oil and other resources.

China wants to prevent military conflict, but its interests do not fully align with those of the United States. China prefers having North Korea on its border to having a U.S. ally there. While recognizing that the existence of North Korean nuclear weapons may make a conflict more likely, China likely appreciates that nuclear weapons may deter the United States from taking military action against North Korea.

Many have called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program, but many factors are working against diplomacy. For one, it is hard to imagine that Kim could be convinced to give up his weapons. Why? Consider the fates of two leaders who gave up their nuclear programs: Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. How could Kim expect anything different if he gives up his program? One possibility is for China or European states to guarantee his survival in exchange for giving up weapons, but it seems highly unlikely Kim would trade his own security blanket for a foreign one.

Furthermore, President Trump repeatedly has talked about “dismantling” the “disastrous” deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Why would Kim expect another nonproliferation deal with the United States to last? The Kims have been down this road before – the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea imploded, with each side claiming the other side was not abiding by its commitments.

Though the Agreed Framework with North Korea ultimately fell apart, it delayed North Korea’s nuclear program for years. That alone is a success. It also meant that U.S. and North Korean officials were having regular direct contact. The situation today is sufficiently dangerous that we must be officially talking with North Korean leaders in order to lessen the chances that a crisis leads to nuclear war.

Beyond diplomacy, the administration should do three additional things:

Spend more time talking to the American people about alliance commitments. Americans have not had to think seriously about putting large numbers of Americans in harm’s way to protect our allies in a long time.

The president should make only carefully calculated threats against North Korea – i.e., no “fire and fury” rhetoric – to avoid unintended escalation.

Finally, the administration could bolster the 70-plus year tradition of non-nuclear use by making clear the U.S. would retaliate to any North Korean nuclear use with overwhelming conventional force. The U.S. military does not need nuclear weapons for that task.


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