Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Trump, Kim Jong Un: 2 scorpions in a bottle

By T.J. Pempel


Last Friday, North Korea launched its second intercontinental ballistic missile in July, its 14th for the year. Together with North Korea’s expanding nuclear stockpile, such tests demonstrate the regime’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is nearing his goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the continental United States. When combined with Kim’s popular image as even less rational and more unpredictable than President Trump, the obvious question for Californians is: How worried should we be?

Before anyone rents a backhoe to begin work on a backyard bomb shelter, consider the actual security situation. As dangerous as North Korea has become, it remains vastly inferior militarily to the United States and its allies. Any preemptive attack by North Korea, whether on California or more likely Japan or South Korea, would unleash horrific damage. It also would trigger such a devastating counterresponse that the regime itself would be obliterated in a matter of weeks.

Today’s situation resembles two scorpions in a bottle: Each has every incentive to avoid an attack on the other. That conviction allows citizens of Seoul, only 35 miles from the North Korean border, to continue their daily activities without pause even as their northern neighbor launches another test or promises to turn the South into a sea of fire.

Despite his bombastic threats and bizarre haircut, Kim Jong Un is by no means irrational. He and the generals around him are fully aware of their regime’s vulnerability. It is precisely that weakness that has motivated their nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea’s most often cited lessons are Iraq and Libya. Saddam Hussein claimed to possess weapons of mass destruction, but his holsters proved empty when the United States launched its preemptive attack and destroyed his regime.

Likewise, under Western pressure Moammar Khadafy abandoned Libya’s embryonic nuclear program only to suffer equally devastating consequences. Frequent and well-publicized nuclear and missile tests allow North Korea to bolster the technical sophistication of its weapons while showcasing to potential adversaries that it will not be as foolish as Iraq or Libya.

North Korea’s burgeoning arsenal gives this scorpion its venom. Estimates are that North Korea now possesses enough fissile material to make 20 or more nuclear bombs while its missiles are advancing in range and sophistication. Miniaturization remains the only major impediment to a marriage of missile and nukes. Moreover, for a regime desperately short of cash and exportable goods, nuclear material and missile technology provide opportunities for cash. Finally, if neighboring countries such as Japan and South Korea become sufficiently anxious about North Korea and insufficiently confident of America’s commitment to their protection, they could opt to develop their own countervailing nuclear programs, triggering a catastrophic arms race across the region.

In response to those growing dangers, the United States has pushed for greater economic sanctions against the North along with secondary sanctions on foreign banks that ignore those sanctions. None is expected to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; those are cards the North will not throw down even if it hesitates to play them.

The best hope now is to compel a freeze on missile tests along with regional agreements and incentives to North Korea that will help manage the problem while keeping mutual provocations to a minimum. And even that minimum will require steady and nuanced diplomacy.

It is here perhaps that Californians should begin to worry. The Trump administration, singing its America First hymn, has proven disdainful of diplomacy, demeaning of its allies and woefully lacking in East Asian, let alone North Korean, expertise.

Most Republican foreign policy experts refuse to serve in a Trump administration while the White House would not have them if they would. Dozens of top-level diplomatic posts remain vacant as the State Department confronts major budget cuts and a demoralized staff.

America’s greatest risk concerning North Korea may well come less from a rational Kim Jong Un and more from an ill-informed and easily provoked Donald Trump.

Cross-posted from the San Francisco Chronicle