World

Why the North Korea Threat Is Greatly Exaggerated

12_30_NorthKorea_01
12/30/16
In the Magazine
A ceremony to celebrate what North Korea claimed was a recent successful nuclear test takes place on September 13 at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kyodo/AP

As President Barack Obama prepares to leave office, consider the world he has left us.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime—backed by Iran and Russia—is finishing a savage bombing campaign to retake Aleppo. Tens of thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been exiled and an entire generation of Sunni Arabs in the country have been embittered.

An administration whose members once touted a doctrine called the “responsibility to protect,” now silently watches a genocide, evidently believing that U.S. intervention would somehow make the situation worse, and probably threaten what this president views as his prized foreign policy trophy: an agreement with Iran that purportedly restrains that regime’s nuclear weapons program, at least for a while.

The Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, meanwhile, recaptured the Syrian city of Palmyra—which had fallen months ago—and oh yes, Al-Qaeda has never had more of a presence in more countries than it does today, despite the administration’s claims to the contrary.

Related: North Korea: What the next U.S. president faces

Then there’s Russia. In addition to restoring its influence in the Middle East, Moscow, has lopped off Crimea in Ukraine, and the Council on Foreign Relations now posits that the possibility of a NATO-Russia confrontation is as high as it has been since the end of the Cold War.

And finally, on December 15, Beijing announced it has deployed powerful anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems to all seven of its new artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago $5 trillion in trade annually. Then China seized a U.S. submersible drone operating in international waters in the South China Sea, only to agree to return it two days later.

Given that litany of debacles abroad, it might surprise you to learn the Obama administration is telling the Trump crowd that the biggest foreign policy issue the incoming president will face is North Korea.

Where to begin? Let’s start with how this administration’s policy in dealing with Pyongyang has been called “strategic patience.” As The Wall Street Journal put it recently, Obama has refused to engage his administration in high-level negotiations with North Korea, waiting for its leader, Kim Jong Un, show he is committed to abandoning his nuclear arsenal.

12_30_NorthKorea_02 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the combat drill of the service personnel of the special operation battalion of KPA Unit 525 in Pyongyang on December 11. KCNA/Reuters

I’ve only been to North Korea twice, but I am certain Kim is never going to voluntarily abandon his nuclear arsenal. Why? Because it’s all he’s got. It’s the only thing standing between him and a job as a body double for the guy who plays him in the sequel to The Interview. Kim, in his own way, kept telling us this, too—with a series of tests of his nukes and ballistic missiles. The administration begged, pleaded and cajoled China to do something to rein him in, much as the Bush administration did previously. And Beijing never did—at least not to a meaningful extent—because China is content with the status quo: It likes a divided Korean peninsula rather than one that’s unified, prosperous and democratic.

Nonetheless, the Obama White House, according to the Journal, is now warning the Trump-kins about Pyongyang. It’s concerned that if Trump “follows through on campaign vows to label China a currency manipulator and slaps Chinese imports with hefty tariffs, Chinese President Xi Jinping will make it a point to be uncooperative on North Korea.”

Kim’s is probably the most repressive regime in the world. And there is reason to be concerned about North Korea’s advances in miniaturizing nuclear warheads, so that they can place one on an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea’s missiles are increasing in range, and some analysts believe they could now hit Los Angeles. That’s why retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former head of Obama’s Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said, “If we just sit back and continue to let [Kim] evolve, we’re going to have someone with that capability, which is unacceptable.”

Except letting Kim “evolve” is what we have already been doing; and if the conclusion one draws from the word unacceptable means the U.S. should think about taking out the North’s nuclear capacity militarily, well, we’ve had that option for a long time, and discarded it. Why? Because it probably guarantees a war on the Korean Peninsula, which no one wants. And that includes Kim: The reason he wants nukes and ballistic missiles is to deter this scenario from ever happening.

Of course, Kim may test Trump as he did Obama. As Stephan Haggard, a longtime North Korea watcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington points out, the average window for a North Korean provocation bracketed around a U.S. election was “13 weeks for Kim Il Sung, six weeks for Kim Jong Il and only four weeks for the young general.”

If the U.S. and its allies have specific intelligence that speaks to Kim’s intentions—that because his nuclear program is getting more sophisticated, therefore he poses more of a threat now than he did, say, a year ago—then it’s fair to wonder whether he poses the biggest threat to the U.S. Because it’s unlikely his intentions have changed: With another nuclear or missile test, he gets to strut before the home crowd, showing them he’s going to poke whoever is in power in Washington; and he’s going to signal to the outside world: Don’t even think about coming after us.

The impact of such a provocation, though, as Haggard suggests, is unlikely to change much. There has never been any evidence that Kim or his father ever wanted a war with the U.S. or its East-Asian allies, for a simple but extremely compelling reason: The North Koreans know they’d be wiped out. That’s why the Obama administration may want to focus Trump’s attention on a few of the other pressing issues that are out there. There are plenty to choose from.

Read more from Newsweek.com:

Why North Korea probably won't nuke its neighbors
- Why the Chinese are laughing at the U.S.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are on a collision course

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