Back in 2013, I asked a former White House official in the George W. Bush administration what he thought of North Korea’s then-recent saber-rattling: making veiled threats to launch a nuclear strike on Texas. He laughed.
“If Obama was smart, he would just ignore the North Koreans as there is no easy way to solve that problem,” he said.
But then he paused for a moment. Stumbling over his words, as if he was unsure if he should go any further, he added, “Well, there is a solution — a war like no other — and millions could die. That is why no one touches North Korea or makes it a top priority. There is no way to rid that nation of its nuclear weapons unless you want to be the first American president where your allies’ cities are turned into atomic ash heaps—and maybe your own. And believe me, no administration is going to risk millions of dead civilians over North Korea. Not now, not ever.”
Fast forward four years and nothing has changed. Except the Pyongyang problem is far worse.
North Korea has as many as sixty nuclear weapons, the ability to miniaturize those weapons to fit onto long-range missiles that can range the U.S. homeland and, while certainly not perfected, a workable warhead design that can likely survive atmospheric reentry if fired in a normal trajectory, according to reports in August from the Washington Post and the Diplomat. Put all that together and there is only one conclusion: North Korea is not only a nuclear-weapons state, but an atomic adversary that could potentially kill millions of Americans at a moment’s notice.
As if the situation was not dangerous enough, there are those who would argue Washington should now consider a military solution, and a full-blown war if necessary, to degrade or destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The argument, to put it simply, is that that it is time to strike Pyongyang’s nukes before the Kim regime has a completely perfected the capability to attack America, to somehow knock out North Korea’s nuclear program with some “shock and awe” style bolt from the blue. They argue — without clearly thinking through the ramifications to our allies or our own homeland — that a war “over there” would be better than the death of innocent Americans “over here.”
Such thinking is nothing but foolish.
It is time to consider with the greatest of vigor what the alternatives to war are. We should do all we can to not only contain the regime of Kim Jong Un but to also begin to assemble a comprehensive strategy for dealing with North Korea. I offer four realistic, common sense ideas to push back against North Korea that could be implemented quickly and make a big difference:
Nominate and confim an ambassador to South Korea
At the moment, we have no U.S. representative in Seoul. While we do have a senior career official acting as a stand-in, nothing carries more weight than a head of state calling the president’s handpicked diplomat during a crisis. With rumors swirling that top-tier North Korea-hand Victor Cha is Team Trump’s choice, someone with years of experience who has previously negotiated with the North Koreans, there could be no one better. Time to make this happen — now.
Declare North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism
While it was taken off the U.S. government’s official terror list years ago, there is no doubt Pyongyang, which has previously sold nuclear and missile technology around the globe, is currently fueling the war in Syria is a terror state. From killing innocent Americans to now holding three of our citizens captive, it is time to re-declare to the world North Korea is a terror state.
Make China pay if it violates sanctions
China signed on to nine different U.N. Security Council resolutions and has not followed eight of them. It appeared last resolution ratified was finally being implemented by Beijing — which takes in around 90 percent of Pyongyang’s exports — but questions are now being asked if China is once again importing coal, which would violate the sanctions. If this is found to be true, it is long past time to punish Beijing directly, perhaps by sanctioning any company, bank or individual doing business with North Korea that violates the UN Security Council pact. If Chinese banks helped facilitate any aspect of the transaction, they too should be fined in dramatic fashion.
Make containment America’s strategy
As someone who has studied the North Korea issue for far too long, I can tell you there is no good military option — unless you want to see potentially millions of people die. Our best option is to contain the problem. Just like we contained the USSR and its allies during the Cold War, we can update such a strategy and use it again. Using economic sanctions to strike at the heart of North Korea’s already weak economy, ringing it with missile defense systems and diplomatic isolation are the best options to get North Korea to the bargaining table.
While the drumbeat of war in Washington might be getting louder and louder, there are options far short of war to mitigate the North Korea challenge. Because a war with Pyongyang is not in our vital national interest — and would be conflict most Americans are certainly not ready for.