How will the United States know for sure when North Korea has a missile that can deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States? What will that moment of recognition look like?
Well, I like to imagine that Donald Trump will be on the back nine at Mar-a-Lago, chipping out of a sand-trap. There we will be flash of light followed, a moment later, by the blast wave rolling over the green, knocking Trump to the ground and sending that toupee down the fairway, like some errant, orange tumbleweed.
I don't know if this missile, which North Korea calls the Hwasong-14, will turn out to have the range to reach Mar-a-Lago or even Trump Tower in Manhattan. Maybe this will be just one more national security threat that Sarah Palin can see from her house. But given the extremely high altitude it reached during its 39 minutes of flight, the Hwasong-14 is clearly an intercontinental-range ballistic missile that can reach parts of the United States. And it represents a reality that is here today: North Korea is determined to hold the United States at risk with nuclear weapons.
We were warned. In his New Year’s Day speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un indicated that his country was prepared to test an ICBM at any time. Donald Trump, characteristically, took to Twitter:
Say it with me in Ron Howard’s voice: Then it happened.
North Korea wanted a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States for a very simple reason: Kim Jong Un and his cronies in Pyongyang watched as the United States assembled a massive invasion force against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, then used airpower to aid the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. The latter was especially frightening for the North Koreans, because Gaddafi had abandoned his WMD programs in a disarmament deal and was then offered up by the Bush administration as an intermediary who would vouch to North Korea that the U.S. keeps its promises.
The deal ended with Gaddafi’s gruesome death on camera. North Korea doesn’t plan to wait around like Saddam or Gaddafi. Instead, once a war starts, North Korea plans to hit U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan with everything it has, including nuclear weapons, hoping to shock the United States and blunt an invasion. U.S. officials often dismiss that possibility by saying it would be suicide for Kim. But Kim is counting on nuclear-armed ICBMs that can target the United States to ensure that Trump realizes that suicide would be mutual.
Trump doesn’t have the slightest idea what to do about this. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, having said we are done talking about North Korea, said nothing. But then again, I am yet to be convinced Tillerson is actually alive and this isn’t some reboot of the Weekend at Bernie’s franchise set at the State Department. Nope, there is no plan.
To the extent that there is any coherent Trump approach, one might infer from his tweets that he believes his new friend, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, will bail him out like his Korea policy was an underwater condo development. But Xi’s interest is transactional and it isn’t clear to me that China is worse off if North Korea can threaten the United States with nuclear weapons. Moreover, if Beijing had so much sway over North Korea, Kim wouldn’t have sent to two assassins to rub VX in the face of his half-brother living under Chinese protection.
It’s not just Trump, though—the Obama administration didn’t know what to do, either. The idea that the United States could work through China or use cyber-attacks to halt North Korea’s missile program was just a collective exercise in denial that our effort to prevent a nuclear-armed North Korea was an abject failure. For eight damned years, I kept hearing about strategic patience in one form or another.
While I think we did have a chance to pick some different outcome in the mid-1990s, the window for denuclearization closed a long time ago. If Kim Il Sung once calculated that he could trade nuclear weapons he had not built for international recognition of his bizarre little dictatorship, his grandson has clearly decided that real nuclear weapons are a lot better than promises on paper. That is our new reality.
Accepting the unacceptable requires a collective effort from Washington to do the hardest thing imaginable: to admit that a policy has failed, that there is no five-paragraph op-ed that promises to produce a happy ending. North Korea is a nuclear-armed state and we have to deal with that. We have to admit that we have interests beyond denuclearization, and that those interests include deterring North Korea but also accepting that North Korea deters us. We have to talk with Tokyo and Seoul about living with a nuclear-armed neighbor. And we have to talk to Pyongyang about reducing tension. Which basically sucks, because Kim Jong Un built the bomb and will probably get what he wants—unlike Gaddafi who gave it up and ended up dead.
All of this is most likely lost on Trump, who seems genuinely unaware of North Korea’s growing missile capabilities. It’s not clear if his denial is just bluster or his staff isn’t fully informing him. Either way, maybe it is for the best. If Trump realized the situation, he might actually try to do something about it, and end up getting a lot of people killed. No, better that Trump just keeps tweeting, floating idle fantasies and issuing blustery threats, all from the comfort of a golf cart. Just make sure that toupee is glued down.