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There is already a close-to-even chance that, in the 30 minutes it would take a North Korean ICBM to reach the West Coast of the United States, the missile would be intercepted and destroyed. But the other way of looking at those odds is that such a missile would have a close-to-even chance of hitting an American city.
This is terrible to ponder, but Americans lived with a far, far greater threat for almost half a century. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. faced the potential for complete destruction. I was one of the kids who performed civil-defense drills in the 1950s, ducking under my school desk while sirens wailed. During the Cuban missile crisis, the possibility seemed imminent enough that I plotted the fastest route from school to home. The threat of nuclear attack is a feature of the modern world, and one that has grown far less existential to Americans over time.
It is expensive to build an atom bomb, and very hard to build one small enough to ride in a missile. It is also hard to build an ICBM. But these are all old technologies. The know-how exists and is widespread. Preventing a terrorist group from acquiring such a weapon may be possible, but when a nation—whether North Korea or Iran or any other—commits itself to the goal, stopping it is virtually impossible. A deal to halt Iran’s nuclear program was doable only because that country has extensive trading and banking ties with other nations. The Kim regime’s isolation means that no country besides China can really apply meaningful economic pressure. Persuading a nation to abandon nuclear arms depends less on military strength than on the collective determination of the world, and a decision made by the nation in question. What’s needed is the proper framework for disarmament—the right collection of incentives and disincentives to render the building of such a weapon a detriment and a waste—so the country decides that abandoning its pursuit of nukes is in its best interest.
It is hard to imagine Pyongyang making such a decision anytime soon, but creating a framework that renders that decision at least conceivable is the only sensible way forward. This is not a hopeless strategy. Over the years Pyongyang, in between its threats and provocations, has more than once dangled offers to freeze its nuclear progress. With the right inducements, Kim very well might decide to change direction. Or he might die. He’s an obese young man with bad habits, a family history of heart trouble, and a personal record of poor health. In such a system, things might change—for better or worse—overnight.
Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s new president, wants to steer his country away from confrontation with Pyongyang, and possibly open talks with Kim. This is likely to put him at odds with Donald Trump, but reduces the chances of the U.S. president doing something rash. China has also expressed more willingness to put pressure on Kim, although it has yet to act emphatically on this. And time might allow the working-out of a peaceful path to disarmament. Better to buy time than to risk mass death by provoking a military confrontation.
“I don’t think now is the time we should be substituting a policy of strategic haste for one of strategic patience—and I was a critic of strategic patience,” Jim Walsh said.
For all these reasons, acceptance is how the current crisis should and will most likely play out. No one is going to announce this policy. No president is going to openly acquiesce to Kim’s ownership of a nuclear-tipped ICBM, but just as George W. Bush quietly swallowed Pyongyang’s successful explosion of an atom bomb, and just as Barack Obama met North Korea’s subsequent nuclear tests and missile launches with strategic patience, Trump may well find himself living with something similar. If there were a tolerable alternative, it would long ago have been tried. Sabotage may continue to stall progress, but cannot stop it altogether. Draconian economic pressure, even with China’s help, is also unlikely to curb Pyongyang’s quest.
“The North Koreans have demonstrated a strong willingness to continue this program, regardless of the price, regardless of the isolation,” says Abe Denmark, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under Obama. “To be frank, my sense is that their leadership really could not care less about the country’s economic situation or the living standards of their people. As long as they are making progress toward nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and they can stay in power, then they seem to be willing to pay that price.”
In short, North Korea is a problem with no solution … except time.
True, time works in favor of Kim getting what he wants. Every test, successful or not, brings him closer to building his prized weapons. When he has nuclear ICBMs, North Korea will have a more potent and lethal strike capability against the United States and its allies, but no chance of destroying America, or winning a war, and therefore no better chance of avoiding the inevitable consequence of launching a nuke: national suicide. Kim may end up trapped in the circular logic of his strategy. He seeks to avoid destruction by building a weapon that, if used, assures his destruction.
His regime thrives on crisis. Perhaps when he feels safe enough with his arsenal, he might turn to more-sensible goals, like building the North Korean economy, opening trade, and ending its decades of extreme isolation. All of these are the very things that create the framework needed for disarmament.
But acceptance, while the right choice, is yet another bad one. With such missiles, Kim might feel emboldened to move on South Korea. Would the U.S. sacrifice Los Angeles to save Seoul? The same calculation drove the U.K. and France to develop their own nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Trump has already suggested that South Korea and Japan might want to consider building nuclear programs. In this way, acceptance could lead to more nuclear-armed states and ever greater chances that one will use the weapons.
With his arsenal, Kim may well become an even more destabilizing force in the region. There is a good chance that he would try to negotiate from strength with Seoul and Washington, forging some kind of confederation with the South that leads to the removal of U.S. forces from the peninsula. If talks were to resume, Trump had better enter them with his eyes open, because Kim, who sees himself as the divinely inspired heir to leadership of all the Korean people, is not likely to be satisfied with only his half of the peninsula.
There is no sign of panic in Seoul. Writing for The New York Times from the city in April, Motoko Rich found residents busy with their normal lives, eating at restaurants, crowding in bars, and clogging some of the most congested highways in the world. In a poll taken before the May election, fewer than 10 percent of South Koreans rated the North Korean nuclear threat as their top concern.
“Since I have been living here for so long, I am not scared anymore,” said Gwon Hyuck-chae, an elderly barber in Munsan, about five miles from the DMZ. “Even if there was a war now, it would not give us enough time to flee. We would all just die in an instant.”
Although in late April Trump called Kim “a madman with nuclear weapons,” perhaps the most reassuring thing about pursuing the acceptance option is that Kim appears to be neither suicidal nor crazy. In the five and a half years since assuming power at age 27, he has acted with brutal efficiency to consolidate that power; the assassination of his half brother is only the most recent example. As tyrants go, he’s shown appalling natural ability. For a man who occupies a position both powerful and perilous, his moves have been nothing if not deliberate and even cruelly rational.
And as the latest head of a family that has ruled for three generations, one whose primary purpose has been to survive, as a young man with a lifetime of wealth and power before him, how likely is he to wake up one morning and set fire to his world?
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Source : https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/the-worst-problem-on-earth/528717/