Given President Donald Trump’s responses to Iran’s recent missile test, it would appear only a matter of time before we find ourselves facing down North Korea.
Trump seems serious about responding to foes that violate U.N. or international agreements to which the United States is signatory. It would not be surprising to see matters quickly escalate, even to the use of military force.
Taking on Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, will not be easy. He is anything but a normal, stable leader. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a model of predictability compared to Kim. Having followed Putin for more than 15 years, it is clear to me that he does not want war.
He certainly wants to re-establish as much of the old Soviet Union as possible. That was obvious with his seizure of the Crimea and his forays in eastern Ukraine. Putin will grab as much as he can. And he will bluff and push things the way he did in his dealings with President Barack Obama.
While I think I can predict Putin’s response to most of Trump’s actions, I have no idea how Kim might react. It is not because he does not know something of the West. He went to school in Switzerland and lived in Macau, the former Portuguese colony in China. But that does not make him an expert on the U.S., France, Germany or Russia. Russian friends tell me that Kim seems afraid of Russians when he is in their country. He travels by train and generally stays on it unless he has meetings with Russians. For their part, Russians want nothing to do with him. Pyongyang is the worst assignment in the Russian diplomatic service. So much for Russian insights.
While it is difficult to evaluate Kim, he is sitting on a dangerous stockpile of nuclear weapons. His primary problem is delivery systems, as is Iran’s. They have not reached the intercontinental stage yet; our best guess, based on North Korean test firings, is that they still have a way to go before being able to launch a missile and hit Hawaii.
They will, however, eventually gain that and greater capability. Most experts believe Iran has been working with North Korea; the two nations appear to be working on a mutual missile delivery system.
Another factor is Kim’s health; it is far from robust. He apparently put on 90 pounds in four years and is said to be a heavy smoker. At first, many North Koreans believed their lot might improve under Kim, given his youth and Western education. But like the rest of the leadership, he bought into the extreme importance of nuclear weapons and personally has focused on his own libations while living a sedentary life. According to debriefings of senior North Korean officials who defected to the West, North Korea remains one of the most isolated nations in the world. Its officials, including Kim, seem to fear information from the West leaking into their world and tainting it. The army, in which every male must serve for up to 10 years, holds a special place.
North Korean officials commonly are shocked when they visit the West. The idea that the average person in the West lives far better than Pyongyang’s most senior officials seems inconceivable to most in the North. Everything is controlled. Western books, films, TV and radio are not generally available.
Kim’s focus remains nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. In fact, the reason there is little prospect for any nuclear reduction scenario is that Kim and senior military leaders have convinced themselves that the only reason the country continues to exist is because of its nuclear weapons. If Pyongyang did not have them, they seem to believe, the South Korean Army, backed by U.S. armed forces, would invade.
Other world leaders may be unpredictable, but none matches Kim. No one is willing to predict what he might do if the Trump administration applies pressure to North Korea because of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. He could react by using nuclear weapons.
That puts the Trump administration in a difficult position. We could find we have no alternative but to use nuclear weapons. The alternative is to allow Kim to fully develop both the missiles and their warheads. That is a tremendous gamble given Kim’s instability.
We have a Hobson’s choice.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations is a retired U. S. diplomat and Navy Captain.