First things first:
No military option, no “surgical strike,” can resolve the standoff with North Korea. South Korea’s capital of Seoul, a metropolitan area of 25 million people, sits within easy range of a huge array of North Korean artillery and would sustain immense casualties during any war. North Korea also possesses a nuclear arsenal that it would likely use if attacked, targeting both South Korea and nearby Japan, where significant numbers of U.S. personnel are also stationed.
Given all that, any attempt to use force against North Korea is estimated to produce a minimum of 250,000 civilian fatalities, with the upper range counted in millions. And morally and strategically, we simply can’t condemn hundreds of thousands or even millions of innocent people to death in hopes of pre-empting a theoretical future attack on the United States. Such a step would be unconscionable, even for an administration that preaches “America First.”
We should also keep in mind that during the Korean War, American leaders operated under the assumption that we could fight and defeat North Korea without bringing China into the war. They were proved tragically incorrect, and it is not a mistake that we can risk repeating.
All that said, it doesn’t hurt to keep a military option available, theoretically and rhetorically, as a way to pressure North Korea and China. The trick is not to become trapped by your own words, creating expectations that you then feel pressured to fulfill.
You know, things like this:
President Trump has repeatedly made it clear that he will not draw a “red line” for North Korea, a clear reference to President Obama’s mistake in drawing a red line in Syria. However, when Trump tells the world that the “era of strategic patience” with North Korea has come to an end, when he warns that “I have some pretty severe things that we’re thinking about,” as he did Thursday in Poland, he does create an expectation of a crisis that is about to be resolved soon, one way or the other.
And the hard truth is that the era of strategic patience is NOT over. North Korea remains a problem to be managed long-term, not solved in the short-term. Life is like that sometimes. While the United States would like nothing more than regime change, with Kim Jong-un replaced with a more malleable leader who abandons nuclear ambitions, China has other priorities. A regime on its border more malleable to the United States is an outcome that it will work hard to avoid.
It is difficult but not impossible to finesse a resolution that both major powers can accept, using a range of economic and diplomatic pressures to alter Chinese calculations. However, doing so will require an American leadership that is smart enough to use tough rhetoric when required, and tough enough to back away from such rhetoric when that approach is required.
It requires U.S. leadership that enjoys the full trust and confidence of our allies, especially in the case of South Korea and Japan, because their fate will sit in our hands. It requires coolly pragmatic, sophisticated diplomacy, conducted by those with deep knowledge of the region and its intricacies. It requires the emotional maturity not to be distracted by North Korean insults and provocation, and to keep focus on the long-term ultimate goal. It requires the setting aside of ego. It requires …
Well, you get the point. We have a leadership problem here at home that also has to be managed rather than solved, and managing both major challenges simultaneously is going to take some doing plus a good deal of luck.