The latest news from North Korea is disappointing. That is, in the nearly three months since President Donald Trump’s Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, prospects for the de-nuclearization of that country seem to be decreasing, not increasing.
On August 24, Trump tweeted that he had directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to travel to North Korea for more talks. On August 26, the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece for the Pyongyang regime, declared that the U.S. and South Korea were preparing an invasion. And on August 27, a CNBC headline blared, “The US is now ‘worse off’ on North Korea than it was before the Trump-Kim summit, expert says.” Needless to say, the American media are always looking for opportunities to slap Trump around.
It’s hard, in fact, to argue that we’re worse off than we were a year ago, or five years ago. After all, North Korea is no longer setting off nuclear explosions, nor is it firing test missiles into the Pacific, nor is it releasing propaganda videos showing Washington, D.C., in flames, as it did in 2013, 2016, and 2017. Indeed, just last month, North Korea kept a promise made in Singapore and returned the remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War. It could even be the case that the Trump-Kim meeting had some positive effect on the relationship between the two mercurial leaders. As Trump said in Singapore, the two men now have a “special bond,” and such personal chemistry could well keep a lid on tensions.
What does not seem likely, of course, is that North Korea will actually give up its nuclear weapons. After all, from the North Korean regime’s point of view, that would be stupid. North Korea lives in a rough neighborhood, shadowed by three nuclear superpowers: China, Russia, and the U.S. Then there’s South Korea, which is a sincere friend to the North Korean people, but is no more than a frenemy to the North Korean regime. And 40 miles away, there’s Japan, an historic enemy of all Koreans.
The point here is not to plead North Korea’s case: the Pyongyang regime is, arguably, the worst in the world. Yet at the same time, it’s wise to understand why the North Koreans act as they do. As the experience of the Korean War taught us, when it comes to North Korean intentions, ignorance is not bliss.
The general rubric for this sort of foreign policy thinking—common here at TAC—is “realism.” By such hard-nosed reckoning, it’s simply unrealistic to think that Kim is going to do something that he doesn’t think is in his interest. And for a couple of decades, the Kim dynasty has understood the value of nuclear weapons. At least until such time as there’s a robust and foolproof missile defense shield, nukes are the great power equalizer.
From Pyongyang’s point of view, the need for such power equalization became all the more urgent after George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech. In that address, the 43rd president singled out North Korea, along with, of course, Iraq and Iran. At that point, all three regimes knew that they were in the crosshairs, and so two of them, North Korea and Iran, got serious about developing a nuclear program. From their point of view, upping their armaments made prefect sense; they needed a plan for defending themselves, and nukes do the trick.
Perversely, the only one of those countries that didn’t make a move towards nuclear weapons was Iraq. Saddam Hussein was anything but innocent; he surely would have developed nukes if he could have—yet he couldn’t. And as we know, he was easily removed from power in 2003. (The non-easy fighting came later, post-“liberation.”)
Thus we can see that nukes are the best friend of a designated “rogue regime.” Indeed, that lesson was underscored by the experience of another rogue nation, Libya. In the wake of regime change in Iraq, Libya voluntarily gave up the rudiments of its nuclear program. Finally, after decades of murderous roguery, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi seemed to be doing his best to work within with the international order. And yet Gaddafi’s late conversion did him no good: in 2011, the U.S. and other Western nations aided rebels, and he and his government were ignominiously destroyed.
We can point to other cautionary tales about denuclearization. For instance, after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the newly independent country of Ukraine found that it had inherited some 1,700 nukes from the evil empire.
At the time, a few wise voices said that the Ukrainians would be foolish to give up those weapons. One such voice was realist thinker John J. Mearsheimer who, in 1993, published a piece in Foreign Affairs bluntly entitled, “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent.”
Mearsheimer argued that the key to Ukraine’s defense “means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it.” He warned, “Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons.” In particular, Mearsheimer said that Ukraine would be foolish to rely on promises, no matter how comprehensive or high-minded: “No state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee.”
Yet in 1994, urged on by the Clinton administration waving many pieces of paper, Ukraine chose to give up its nukes. It was less than 20 years later when the Russians did exactly what Mearsheimer had predicted—they attacked.
In 2014, after the Russians seized Crimea and were gnawing on Ukraine’s east, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko lamented that his country had fallen into the “trap” of “pacifist illusions” two decades earlier. He added, speaking of his naive predecessors, that they had been lulled into “believing the world had all turned vegetarian.”
Thus we can see: any national leader facing a serious foreign threat—whether democratically elected or a dictatorial tinpot—is better off if he or she can wield a nuclear arsenal.
Now we can see more clearly the choices before North Korea’s Kim. He might be a thoroughly rotten person, and yet he’s well-fortified: the world can’t remove him without enormous cost, so it has to deal with him. Yes, it’s nice to explore whether he might yet be willing to reduce or eliminate his arsenal; he could, after all, have some sudden Damascene conversion. And miracles do happen, although they don’t happen very often. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that if Kim suddenly went peacenik, the non-peaceniks around him would step in to protect their regime, which is to say, get rid of him.
We might pause now to consider that other member of the old axis of evil: Iran.
The Iranians may or may not be abiding by the 2015 nuclear deal, but it’s naive to think that they don’t still want nuclear weapons. And given that Iran is a country of 80 million people surrounded by dangerous neighbors, it’s hard to see how anything short of national annihilation will stop them from getting nukes eventually. What they do with them, of course, is an unknown; this is where diplomacy, deterrence, and, yes, missile defense could yet make the difference.
To be sure, many will deem this assessment to be depressing. As we know, there’s an enormous arms control apparatus in the U.S. and around the world, buoyantly dedicated to disarmament, non-proliferation, and generally beating swords into plowshares. (And there are more than a few regime changers still lurking about—they all have optimistic plans, too.)
Mere facts on the ground, no matter how stubborn, are unlikely to dissuade any of these folks from their ongoing efforts to save the world. Yet as we have seen, the logic of nuclear proliferation is strong. Pakistan, to cite another nuclear-armed country, is a respected international player because of its arsenal, and wouldn’t be without it.
In the meantime, the American national interest requires a rethinking of how countries defend themselves. More specifically, the U.S. can’t expect to be able to continue defending every country against every other country. This faulty status quo is perhaps most glaring on the Korean peninsula. South Korea, which we are pledged to defend, has twice the population of North Korea, and their GDP is almost 100 times higher. Why, then, is it our task to defend Seoul—especially when we run a trade deficit of some $20 billion a year? As this author wrote in June, “It’s simply not normal that one country should do all this defending, and oftentimes pay for the privilege of doing it.”
For his part, Trump might not succeed in denuclearizing North Korea, but he might succeed in energizing the self-defense efforts of South Korea, Japan, and other countries. And yes, such upgraded efforts might include nuclear weapons.
That’s not a particularly optimistic thought; it’s merely a realistic one. And as we have seen, after all the preachy illusions of Left and Right are flitted and frittered away, the world is left with something hard and lasting: reality.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.