The tensions between the United States and North Korea grew more ominous and urgent last week. Americans should be rightfully concerned about the nuclear ambitions of the hermit state and diplomatic pratfalls in the Trump White House.
A leaked new assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency speeds up the anticipated date for assembly-line production of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the West Coast and beyond. The Washington Post last week reported that North Korea is now anticipated to have that capacity “sometime in 2018,” not years from now, as has been assumed.
As if that’s not enough to induce midnight sweats, one of the regime’s last major technical barriers to a “War Games” scenario is the capacity for long-range North Korean missiles to survive atmospheric re-entry. Kim Jong Un’s military is now anticipated to break that barrier as early as “this week,” the Post reported.
U.S. options for addressing the growing North Korea nuclear threat are all bad. Successive presidential administrations, from Clinton onward, have unsuccessfully pressured China to use economic leverage to rein in North Korea. Trump added bluster to that strategy, but he has been equally unsuccessful so far.
Diplomatic sanctions, expanded under Obama, leave North Korea on an economic island. Yet Pyongyang has undergone such a building boom that it has been dubbed Pyonghattan, with 18 towers at least 48 stories tall built in 2012 and “a grand, new apartment complex nearly every year since [Kim Jong Un] assumed power,” according to the North Korea-watch blog 38north.org.
Those failed strategies lead to talk of a military strike to wipe out the North Korean nuclear program. That is much easier to propose than execute. As retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey wrote in a Seattle Times Op-Ed this year, North Korea is “an army wrapped in an impoverished nation,” with 24 percent of its GDP devoted to the military and 21,000 artillery weapons aimed at the 25 million residents of Seoul.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said that it would be impossible to destroy that capacity in a single strike and that it could trigger catastrophic retaliation against South Korea and Japan, as well as the 25,000 U.S. soldiers still based on the Korean Peninsula. Smith essentially recommends a new Cold War with North Korea: Assure Kim Jong Un of his regime’s destruction if he ever uses his nukes.
Trump adds to the anxiety with his Twitter anti-diplomacy and naiveté about the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is clearly on course to be his administration’s first crisis. Disturbingly, his administration has not laid out a clear plan to address it. That could mean another effort at international diplomacy, such as the Six Party talks. A military strike must be the absolute last option.
The nation waits, as the doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE SEATTLE TIMES