North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un is often described as unpredictable. But that’s a little misleading.
Judging by his actions since he assumed the role of supreme leader in late 2011, Kim’s intentions are pretty clear to North Korea watchers. The grandson of the country’s late founder and eternal president, Kim Il-sung, wants to develop the capability to hit the United States with a nuclear-tipped long-range missile.
The North’s nuclear test early this month, North Korea’s sixth and most powerful yet by far, and this week’s missile test over Japan, the 15th such test flight this year, fit the pattern.
In contrast, it’s difficult to know what Donald Trump is planning to do about all this. At times, the new American president has dismissed the usefulness of negotiating with the North Korean leader. But Trump has also said he’d be willing to sit down and talk with Kim.
Last month, the president used some language that would not have sounded out of place in a broadcast from North Korea’s own official news agency.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump said.
A string of tweets this week from a Washington-based reporter for Al-Monitor got a lot of people’s attention. If accurate, they implied that the Trump administration was actively planning for a post-war scenario in North Korea wherein the Kim regime was no longer in power.
are quietly preparing studies on the aftermath of war with North Korea...A couple of the shops with big teams of analysts. 2/— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) September 12, 2017
“What got people's back up is the sense that this was an indication that the Trump administration was preparing to overthrow the Kim Jong-un regime which, by any estimation, would be an extremely bloody and violent affair,” says Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So, could this be something akin to the events of summer 2002, when the administration of George W. Bush began its steady march toward pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq?
“I don't think we are on the precipice of a US invasion of North Korea at this point,” Ratner says.
“Our allies in the region don't support that. I don't think there's anyone among President Trump’s senior national security team who's clamoring for an invasion, and that's really a significant difference between the situation now and ... 2002.”
“Senior military officials within the Trump administration understand the dangers of an invasion of North Korea and, for now, he appears to be listening to them,” Ratner says.
At the same time, planning for all sorts of contingencies is vital, Ratner says. There is no guarantee that Kim Jong-un’s grip on power will last and the US government needs to think about how it would handle something like internal strife or even regime collapse.
“Instability in North Korea would present huge challenges across the board and not just on security issues, but also economic, humanitarian, political, diplomatic. So, I actually think the US government should be planning for potential instability scenarios as it pursues a maximum pressure strategy,” Ratner says.
And maximum pressure is precisely what is needed with North Korea, says Anthony Ruggiero of the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“We're at a new stage in the sense that we're finally going after non-North Koreans. In particular, Russians and Chinese firms and individuals that are facilitating North Korea sanction evasion,” Ruggiero says.
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Ruggiero says he does not see any evidence of a quiet effort to push pre-emptive war planning in Washington. But he says there is a sense that some big decisions have to be made to confront North Korea.
“Ten years of kicking the can down the road have gotten us to this point,” Ruggiero says.
“I don't think that military strikes are on the table right now. It's always an option that would have to be considered based on how North Korea is acting. But I don't see calls for pre-emptive military strikes.”
Suzanne DiMaggio is one of the few Americans who has participated in direct negotiations with North Korean officials. DiMaggio is with the New America Foundation and she directs what’s known as a “track two” channel for US-North Korean dialogue.
“Policymakers in Washington have been forced to reassess their thinking on North Korea,” DiMaggio says. “It’s become clear that the North Korean leadership has concluded that the US will not attack a country that possesses nuclear weapons plus the means to deliver them.”
Experts are coming around to the thinking, DiMaggio says, “that Kim Jong-un is not going to give up his nuclear weapons any time soon. Once everyone has absorbed that dose of reality, then you can have a more realistic discussion about what our options are.”
DiMaggio says discussions are moving toward something that was mostly unthinkable until fairly recently, and that is the idea of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea.
“While the goal of denuclearization shouldn’t be abandoned, there’s a need to be realistic and set it aside, at least in the near term,” she says. DiMaggio says the primary objectives for the US right now should be to reduce tensions with the North Koreans and to deter them from using or proliferating their nuclear know-how.
“That to me makes greater sense,” DiMaggio says. “We have to recognize that the North Korean leadership has demonstrated an unflinching determination to advance its nuclear program.”
Susan Rice, the former national security advisor for President Barack Obama, articulated this view in a recent editorial. “History shows that we can, if we must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea — the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War,” Rice argued in The New York Times.
This would be a big mistake, says Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “It’s not time, even now, with North Korea on the brink of nuclear breakout, to make threats of military action,” Lee says.
But giving up on the goal of denuclearization and deciding to accept nuclear North Korea is a very different thing from what the US did with China or Russia, Lee writes in his own editorial.
“During the Cold War, neither Beijing nor Moscow faced an existential threat in the form of an alternate Chinese or Russian state. Pyongyang, on the other hand, has had to live with a far more prosperous and legitimate Korean state across its southern border.”
North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs give Pyongyang an advantage over Seoul, and they help ensure the survival of the Kim regime long term.
Lee says the only way forward for the Trump administration is to enforce economic sanctions — both US sanctions and United Nations sanctions — against North Korea and its partners, especially in China. He says Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric is not helping the current standoff.
Lee adds that actively planning and envisioning a future without a Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea, is something worth doing.
“We will be able to break that taboo of conceiving even a united Korea,” Lee says. “The more we talk about it, the power of the taboo will be shaken more and more.”