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Cold War Relic, Present Day Threat

You can kick the can down the road, but when Kim Jong Un announces, as he did last Sunday, that “we have reached the final stage in preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic rocket,” you are reaching the end of that road.

Since the early 1990s, we have offered every kind of inducement to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program. All failed miserably. Pyongyang managed to extort money, food, oil and commercial nuclear reactors in exchange. But it was all a swindle. North Korea was never going to give up its nukes because it sees them as the ultimate guarantee of regime survival.

The North Koreans believe that nukes confer inviolability. Saddam Hussein was invaded and deposed before he could acquire them. Kim won’t let that happen to him. That’s why Thae Yong Ho, a recent high-level defector, insisted that “As long as Kim Jong Un is in power, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards.”

Meanwhile, they have advanced. They’ve already exploded a handful of nuclear bombs. And they’ve twice successfully launched satellites, which means they have the ICBM essentials. If they can miniaturize their weapons to fit on top of the rocket and control reentry, they’ll be able to push a button in Pyongyang and wipe out an American city.

What to do? The options are stark:

(1) Preemptive attack on its missile launching facilities. Doable but reckless. It is the option most likely to trigger an actual war. The North Koreans enjoy both conventional superiority and proximity: a vast army poised at the Demilitarized Zone only 30 miles from Seoul. Americans are not going to fight another land war in Asia.

(2) Shoot down the test ICBM, as advocated by the Wall Street Journal. Assuming we can. Democrats have done their best to abort or slow down anti-missile defenses since Ronald Reagan proposed them in the early 1980s. Even so, we should be able to intercept a single, relatively primitive ICBM of the sort North Korea might be capable of.

Though such a shoot-down would occur nowhere near North Korean soil, it could still very well provoke a military response. Which is why the new administration should issue a clear warning that if such a test missile is launched, we will bring it down. Barack Obama is gone. Such a red line could be a powerful deterrent.

(3) Return tactical U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea. They were withdrawn in 1991 by George H.W. Bush in the waning days of the Cold War. Gorbachev’s Soviet Union responded in kind. A good idea in general, but not on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang had railed constantly against their presence, but they did act as a deterrent to any contemplated North Korean aggression. Which might make them a useful bargaining chip.

(4) Economic leverage on China, upon which Pyongyang depends for its survival. Donald Trump seems to suggest using trade to pressure China to get North Korea to desist. The problem is that China has shown no evidence of being willing to yield a priceless strategic asset — a wholly dependent client state that acts as a permanent thorn and distraction to U.S. power in the Pacific Rim — because of mere economic pressure.

(5) Strategic leverage on China. We’ve been begging China for decades to halt the North Korean nuclear program. Beijing plays along with sanctions and offers occasional expressions of dismay. Nothing more. There’s one way guaranteed to get its attention. Declare that we would no longer oppose Japan acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

This is a radical step that goes against our general policy of nonproliferation. But the point is to halt proliferation to the infinitely more dangerous regime in North Korea. China is the key. The Chinese have many nightmares, none worse than a nuclear-armed Japan.

The principal strategic challenge facing the United States is the rise of revisionist powers — Russia, China and Iran — striving to expel American influence from their regions. In comparison, the Korean problem is minor, an idiosyncratic relic of the Cold War. North Korea should be a strategic afterthought, like Cuba. And it would be if not for its nukes.

That’s a big if. A wholly unpredictable, highly erratic and often irrational regime is acquiring the capacity to destroy an American city by missile. That’s an urgent problem.

North Korea may be just an unexploded ordnance of a long-concluded Cold War. But we cannot keep assuming it will never go off.

© 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Charles Krauthammer
Charles Krauthammer writes a weekly political column that runs on Fridays. He is also a Fox News commentator and appears nightly on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
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  • RobfromVA

    Maybe we should do like we did Gaddafi, drop a bomb on him and his family! Then ask if any others in NK want some of that!

    • And then China drops one on Taipei, or Tokyo, and we’re obligated to defend. Not the best move, but it appeals to the animal nature in me on some level. Short, sweet, to the point. Fast result. ]

      • RobfromVA

        Possible but not probable… China would be in shambles without the US as their largest customer!

  • jrj90620

    Just hope there are some adults in the room(China?),to keep Kim from making any crazy moves.Same goes for our crazy future President,Trump.Really getting worried about Trump’s fascist moves,telling companies where they can locate factories.

    • Bill

      Mr. K’s 5th option seems to be the best. Mr. Trump will not cave in like BHO has done on every foreign policy issue.

  • justinwachin

    We need to put pressure on China to rein North Korea in. Arming Japan with nuclear weapons would be a good threat. After all, North Korea poses a threat to Japan. They should have nuclear weapons that they could use to respond to a nuclear attack by North Korea. Unless Kim Jong Un abandons his nuclear ambitions he should understand that South Korea will be armed with nuclear weapons.

    Kim Jong Un may not know whether his nuclear weapons would work in a wartime situation, but the ones we send his neighbors will work. I expect President Trump will have some success dealing with this guy, because Mr. Trump doesn’t have the reputation for being weak and ineffective like the current president.

  • kenhowes

    If enough of these pirate nations have nukes, then it’s time for Japan, Germany and South Korea to have nukes.

  • Jerryb53

    “The principal strategic challenge facing the United States is the rise of revisionist powers — Russia, China and Iran — striving to expel American influence from their regions” If Russia, China, or Iran had their influence in our regions wouldn’t we try to expel them. This is the problem. We can’t make the world America but we keep on trying. If China were even beginning to set up missile sites in Mexico the USA would put a stop to it. The US has bases all around Russia. What do you expect them to do?

    America can expect the same reaction as America would give from other Countries if they feel threatened.

  • scruffyleon

    Let Trump have a crack at making a deal with China and N Korea.

  • Zach Freeman

    The North Koreans must know that if they ever launched a missile against the US they would cease to exist. There’d be no negotiations, the response would be automatic and, ideally, grossly disproportionate. Furthermore, we could do the job with a single Ohio-Class SSBN. Even if Kim isn’t aware of that I’m sure his generals are.

    • Adam Brandes

      I doubt it.

      • Zach Freeman

        Which one? That we would turn South Korea into an island if the north attacked us? That we could do the job with a single Ohio-class boat, or that Kim Kong Un’s generals are unaware that we have that capability?

  • Lorraine E

    It is my understanding that North Korea has two satellites flying over our country from the south. If these satellites have been armed with even small nuclear bombs which could be detonated over the center of our country, they could create an EMP (electric magnetic pulse) and destroy our electric grid for years. If our country was without electricity for even one year it is highly probable that most Americans would not survive. Their deaths would not be the result of a small bomb but rather the loss of electricity. It must also be recognized that even a large solar flare could destroy our nation’s electric grid and the results would be the same.

  • gysgtrickroy

    North Korea is a problem child that can be deal with! Don’t fear a nation that knows and understands that as a people group they will cease to exist if they so much as sneeze in the direction of America or one of our allies!
    Now, those EMP Satellites orbiting over or country, could destroy America as we know it, but our nuke boats would even the score, and again N. Korea will cease to exist!
    Now, here is the true ENEMY, an implacable enemy whose only desire is “Death to America”!
    Push to keep ALL MUSLIMS OUT of America! Learn the hatred that is the Qur’an. Then understand that one nuke in the 90% shipping containers that are not inspected will totally destroy LA or NYC, totally destroying the American economy and doing exactly what Islam, wants Death to America!
    It is not necessary to destroy many U.S. cities, it is only necessary to disrupt our economy, and we will destroy ourselves!
    The viable scenarios for the ISIS cells already in America and those that have been imported by our communist Muslim President are too numerous to mention, from as few as 20 men circulating as snipers, to synchronized attacks on power generation and oil refineries, with over 5,000,000 Muslims in our country there are more terrorist than we can handle!
    Understand this, any Muslim who knows and understands the Qur’an is a terrorist or will support terrorism given the opportunity!
    Study your enemy,

    Gysgt Rick Roy
    USMC Ret

  • Tim Kern

    Or we could wait to see if North Korea’s threat is real, and wait until it takes out a US city, polluting millions of square miles of US soil for decades.
    That has been Obama’s strategy, and like all his strategies, the worst possible option for the US.

    • Adam Brandes

      I wish it was only him. He is almost gone but the Apparat remains.

  • FBAshplant

    Exacerbating the problem is 8 years wasted by a feckless Obama administration.