Yesterday, the North Korean threat finally crossed the ocean to our shores. As it is after every fresh outrage from Pyongyang, the question many will ask is, “Now what?” Certainly, there are plenty of legal, financial, and diplomatic options on this list that President Trump’s cabinet can exercise. Congress is also ready to act, or nearly so. You should expect to see the Senate move legislation you’ve seen (or something similar to it) and legislation you have not yet seen. That is good, but is there still time? After years of indecision and neglect, it will take concerted diplomatic and law-enforcement efforts for financial pressure to show its effects on Pyongyang, and no pressure that fails to threaten the very end of Kim Jong-Un’s misrule will be sufficient.
As you read this, “experts” across Northwest D.C., including some of those who are most responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place, are proof-reading their next op-eds calling for us to beg for a deal that Pyongyang doesn’t want and wouldn’t keep. As Pyongyang has said repeatedly (though too many of us choose not to hear it) it will not negotiate away its nuclear arsenal. A freeze would only trade away valuable concessions until Pyongyang seizes on the slightest pretext to renege on it. Those who tell us that we must talk to North Korea ignore the evidence of how often we have tried. Indeed, it is they who aren’t listening to North Korea. These people are deluding everyone — most of all themselves. Pyongyang did not starve millions of “expendable” people to build a nuclear arsenal so that it could trade that arsenal away. Kim Jong-Un does not want nuclear weapons merely to defend himself from us. He will use them to blackmail Seoul into a “peace process” that would achieve the incremental surrender of South Korea and ultimately, the legacy to which his father and grandfather devoted their lives — the reunification of Korea under his rule. I believe he now sees that goal as within his reach. He may be right.
Can we learn to live with a nuclear North Korea that sold missile technology to Iran, built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS, and threatened to sell nuclear weapons to terrorists? That attacked our South Korean treaty ally or U.S. forces stationed in Korea in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1976, 1983, 1987, 1998, 2002, 2010, and 2015, killing 50 South Koreans in 2010 alone? That sends assassins to murder human rights activists and dissidents in exile? That has launched cyberattacks against banks, newspapers, nuclear power plants, and the Seoul subway? That launched another cyberattack against a Hollywood movie studio, made terrorist threats against movie theaters in the United States, and chilled the freedom of expression that Americans cherish and have given their lives for? That murdered the half-brother of its tyrant with a deadly nerve agent, in a crowded airport terminal, in the capital city of a friendly nation, 5,000 miles away? That may already be able to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon? The very idea is madness. One day, Kim Jong-Un, whose tolerance for risk always exceeds the calculations of our “expert” class, will go further than we are prepared to tolerate. Down this path lies war — a war whose potential will grow more destructive with each passing year.
Any fool who can hear the rising roar and see the boiling cloud of mist ahead knows where this current is carrying us. We cannot live with a nuclear North Korea if it means — as it assuredly does — the end of nonproliferation and the beginning of an age in which nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyber-terrorism will cease to be theoretical and become imminent and frequent. Fundamentally, the question isn’t really whether we can live with a nuclear North Korea, but whether a nuclear North Korea so inculcated with hatred of America, and with contempt for our open and democratic society, would live with us.
For now, I doubt we’ll make much progress with Russia or China at the U.N., though I think we should give it a token try. One additional provision that’s now worth asking for is an air and sea blockade in which only imports of food, non-luxury consumer goods, and humanitarian supplies should go through. But China and Russia would not agree to this, and I increasingly incline toward not wasting our political capital there. Instead, we should re-focus our diplomatic energy on progressive diplomacy to build a coalition outside of the U.N. to enforce existing U.N. sanctions and deny the North Korean regime the funds that sustain it. But is there still time? And more importantly, don’t Pyongyang’s escalations call for a reassessment of what sanctions are meant to achieve, and therefore the targeting strategy?