Should we be worried?
Very recently, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Admiral Jim Stavridis. Now retired from the military and a Dean at the prestigious Tufts University, his career included a stint as Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. Importantly, he is best friends with Jim Mattis, the current Defense Secretary in Trump’s Cabinet. I asked the Admiral if we should be worried about North Korea. His short answer was, most unfortunately, yes.
North Korea’s very considerable conventional weaponry is arrayed along the border with South Korea, where it is capable of inflicting material damage on Seoul in fairly short order. Its nuclear weaponry and missile silos are buried deep underground in many disparate locations. Knocking out these sites, together with the destruction of their conventional offensive capability would take time. And this time would result in very heavy casualties in South Korea and possibly elsewhere, such as Japan. The prospect that the U.S. mainland could be hit by an intercontinental nuclear tipped missile is still remote. Obviously this is all very unsettling and the prospect of any conflict, conventional or nuclear, is completely unacceptable.
So, what to do—apart from calling President Kim ‘rocket man’, or ‘little rocket man’? There are important lessons for us in the history of the prelude to WWII and how badly the Allies responded to Hitler in his rise to power. There were many times during his ascendancy when a strong reaction by the Allies to his treaty-breaching antics would have materially compromised his authority and his ability to co-op the German military establishment (which had no wish for war). His power over them and his authority as a supreme leader (dictator) was only really confirmed by the Munich accord in 1938. With the acceptance by Chamberlain of Hitler’s right to annex part of Czechoslovakia, any internal resistance to Hitler’s reign was finished. The lesson is that the forces of good simply cannot allow the forces of evil to continue to thumb their noses at the rest of the world. All this does is to ensconce power in dangerous hands.
If there are no practical or legitimate military options, what do we do to curb Kim’s ambitions? The ability to do so is not resident with the United States or the United Nations; only indirectly can either bring influence to the table. The power or authority is resident with one man: President Xi Jinping of China. The relationship between China and North Korea goes back to Kim’s grandfather who was able to convince the Chinese military and political leadership that he could successfully invade South Korea without generating an offensive reaction from the Americans. Of course, he was proved wrong. The Americans did respond and not only drove him out of South Korea but were in danger of overthrowing the North Koreans thereby forcing the Chinese, very reluctantly, to enter the war. They did so to preserve a communist North Korea as a buffer between South Korea and China itself. China very much wants this buffer to remain. It does not want Kim to do silly things and is already worried he may have gone too far and encouraged the Japanese to consider re-arming. That would seriously undermine Chinese hegemony in South East Asia and produce a threat which does not now exist. The Chinese also don’t want a collapsed state in North Korea as that would only result in a flood of refugees across their border.
If there are no practical or legitimate military options, what do we do to curb Kim’s ambitions? The ability to do so is not resident with the United States or the United Nations.
President Xi needs to sit down with President Kim and have a good heart-to-heart. The substance of the conversation should be that he (Xi) will not allow stability in the region to be threatened by allowing North Korea to continue to develop or possess nuclear weaponry. The consequences of failing to heed that principle will be the Chinese forcibly removing Kim from power (or worse). Kim has done his homework. He knows the Americans have no military options and he knows the American ability to assassinate him is limited (he is already changing his daily behavior to compromise any such attempt). But he also knows what the Chinese can do.
The horse trading that should emerge from Trump’s coming visit to Beijing should surround what the U.S. can offer China to get President Xi to proceed as outlined. And there are many areas of quid pro quo—including removing U.S. recognition of Taiwan and reducing the American military presence in South Korea (the list of possibilities is extensive). What President Xi can offer Kim is financial support, trading opportunities and economic growth, thereby ensuring Kim’s power over his country remains intact.
This is all possible. Whether it will happen is doubtful. But pay attention, if the world had done so in 1937 and 1938 we might have been able to stop that war. Let’s not make that mistake again.