Tensions are so high on the Korean peninsula that a nuclear horror — what the Republican essayist Michael Gerson has called “apocalyptic danger” — is beyond rational comprehension.
More serious still is the sober realization that the power to prevent the military option of using hydrogen bombs is in the hands of two narcissistic heads of state. It would be foolish to minimize the lunacy and self-induced paranoia of Kim Jung Un, whose publicly announced end game is the rapid development and testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles now proceeding at an alarming rate.
President Trump has intensified the confrontation by declaring we are in a war and that “things North Korea never thought possible” will happen if it continues to use purposeful and inflammatory verbal threats against us and our allies.
Some observers have been thinking creatively about a diplomatic way out of this seemingly intractable problem. Endorsing a plan proposed by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, they would pledge publicly to North Korea and the entire world that the United States never would be the first nation to launch a unilateral pre-emptive strike against another country. This would be rejected by Kim Jung Un with yet another round of denunciations of American aggression. But around the world, America’s willingness to abandon its first strike capacity to use nuclear weapons would be seen as a serious step toward a peaceful resolution of a menacing problem.
This is a bold plan, far superior to any others proposed. However, it is based on a major condition that neither strengthens our position against North Korea nor deters that country’s military leaders from solidifying their single goal of remaining an increasingly expanding nuclear power.
Kim Jung Un knows an attack on the United States or any other allied nation, by design or by mistake, would lead to a massive military assault on his country. Nevertheless, he has stated repeatedly and unequivocally that he will not negotiate any plan with the United States that would require him to demilitarize and dismantle his missile program. Any such plan, he has insisted, is non-negotiable.
What else can be done to avert the unimaginable? We need a new beginning. I would start by telling North Korea’s leaders that they may continue to build their nuclear state without any military interference from the United States — “no conditions attached.” If that is the society they want, they can have it. We will not try to stop them. They need only be fully aware of the consequences if their plans go awry.
Many will immediately call this weakness or appeasement on our part. “We must destroy their nuclear arsenal before they are in a position to attack us wherever and whenever they choose,” they would say. The truth is, they already have more than enough destructive power to do irreparable damage to us now.
While President Trump cannot stop North Korea solely for its continued bluster and oral fits of anger, he can take the political and diplomatic initiative by working closely with China and South Korea and announce that the United States will implement a policy of “patient deterrence and containment” that is least likely to lead to the loss of life. He should declare — again — that we have no interest in “regime change,” and restate our readiness to take the first-strike military option off the table — unless we are attacked first, in which case we would immediately assess the situation and retaliate appropriately. He should then urge President Kim to work with us in an open-ended, step-by-step process that would be non-threatening to either nation.
It is a virtually impossible task for us to offer North Korea a plan it would agree to negotiate. A major reason the differences are especially difficult to settle is because there are no democratic politics in North Korea. Having disallowed any dissent or disagreement at all, President Kim has substituted one-man, top-down power for democratic leadership. Only in such a closed society, where the people are accustomed to being told what is “good” for them, is the distinctive context of politics totally missing. There are no doubts, only certitude. There are no partial answers, just total solutions.
Not so here at home. Politics in a free society deals with the contingent and the unknown.
Politics as Americans have experienced it is the civilizing process of conciliation and compromise. North Koreans are not free and will not be free until they and their differing interests can claim a share of political power. That is what democratic politics is all about.
In ruling out the use of military force, we are saying to President Kim: Keep your nuclear-based society if that is not open to negotiation, but join us in trying to turn unreconciled differences into some kind of agreement that might persist for some period of time. He will turn us down, of course, but in doing so he will only have further isolated his country from the rest of the world.
I support Friedman and others who want to bombard the people of North Korea with millions of “democracy fliers” or leaflets that will give them some idea of how an open democracy differs from their closed society. I would especially target young people who cannot express publicly their own views but, who we know (from the little intelligence we have), are privately looking for every possibly way to learn how a free society works.
The most difficult problem between us and North Korea is one in which neither side would provoke hostile conflict that could lead to war. President Trump needs to be persuaded that the worst possible outcome is having North Korea become a failed state. To date, however, nothing he has said would lead anyone to believe he thinks this to be true. Quite the opposite; he talks as if only “might is right.” But China and South Korea both have warned that first-strike military action would quickly turn the peninsula into a horrific war zone. They strongly believe that what is urgently needed is deterrence and containment, along with tougher sanctions on North Korea and a vigorous diplomatic peace initiative — which they have long maintained is the only realistic option.
Like it or not, President Trump is the key player in keeping the Korean peninsula free of nuclear war. We made him our president, and now he must act like a political leader who can be a bargainer, a negotiator, and a conciliator who understands the relationship of “means to ends,” where violation of the former becomes an act of political death — and the inability to fulfill the latter can cause political extinction.
Mr. Trump has often said he relies on his “gut instinct” to do the right thing. Who knows — does he know? — where his gut would lead us?
John H. Bunzel is a political scientist on the faculty at Stanford University. He was president of San Jose State University in the 1970s, served on the U.S. Commission On Civil Rights from 1983-1986, and in 1990 received the Hubert Humphrey Award as “an outstanding public policy practitioner.” He resides in Mount Pleasant.