For the last twenty years we have watched as president after president has attempted to tackle the North Korea question, each in their own way. Though they have done so with slight variations, the overall strategy has ultimately been the same. Unfortunately, so have the results.
The Crux of the Conflict
Though there are innumerable diplomatic subtleties, the conflict we have been facing with North Korea can be effectively boiled down to just a few sentences. The United States was initially focused on ensuring that North Korea not obtain nuclear weapons. That strategy has evolved over time as circumstances have changed to now ensure that those weapons cannot be effectively delivered to harm us or our allies. North Korea, on the other hand, has made it abundantly clear that they wish to obtain these weapons and be recognized as a legitimate nuclear power, claiming their stake in the world. While this back and forth has transpired, China serves as the lynchpin in the region, helping both sides at different times when it serves their interests.
There is no doubt that this does not do justice to the complexity of the situation, but in a nutshell this has been what every administration since Bill Clinton has faced. The truly slippery dilemma from our perspective is to see success without bloodshed. This objective has fueled our diplomatic efforts for decades. To even contemplate what would happen if diplomacy failed is too horrible to imagine.
With military options off the table, we have prodded along with our back and forth with the North Korean regime only to their advantage. Our good faith diplomacy has been used as a stalling tactic by the North Koreans in order to guarantee that they reach their objective. It has always seemed as if there will always be more time for talks. However, with the events of the last few weeks and months, the last grains of sand may be trickling out of the hourglass.
Last week North Korea underwent two incredibly provocative actions that have pushed us toward the unthinkable. First, they fired a test missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean just off Japan’s East Coast. The nerve that it takes to launch weaponry into the airspace of another nation is disturbing in the extreme, and is evidence of the increased willingness of Kim Jong-un to push the region into war. What I also found equally disturbing is the fact that Japan did nothing in response to this blatant disregard of their sovereignty. There was no attempt to try and shoot the projectile out of the sky whatsoever, and chose instead to just warn their citizens to shelter in place.
Whether this lack of action was by design or simply reactionary isn’t clear, but in either case it sheds light on the precariousness of our situation. If it was indeed by design, then we need to seriously reevaluate how our friends respond to blatantly provocative and aggressive moves from a nuclear neighbor. If, on the other hand, this was simply an unfortunate mishap, then our allies may be more susceptible to being caught flat-footed than we would like. Either scenario is no reassurance in the slightest.
Only days following their missile test across Japan, North Korea engaged in a Hydrogen bomb test in the northern part of its country. This test was so powerful that it recorded high on the Richter Scale. This is the first time North Korea has conducted such a test during the Trump administration, and it’s the sixth of its kind in history. This has only served to push the ball down the field towards conflict. The response from the United States has been swift and firm. Between General Mattis’ comments outside the White House — promising a retaliatory strike as a result of any further provocations — and Nikki Haley’s stellar performance on the floor of the United Nations, we have proven ourselves tougher than at any time in recent memory.
Tough is good, there is no doubt. It is clear that appeasement is not working and we must turn to other means to suppress the threat from North Korea. We should be both reassured by Trump’s stance and concerned at the same time. We must fully understand that this is not a zero-sum game with North Korea. Diplomacy is like three dimensional chess. It is not black and white — not even close.
However, while I do believe there is still time left for some diplomatic back and forth, time is running out rapidly. It is hard to fathom a scenario at this point that does not result in a physical war of some kind with North Korea. The real questions are “How it will begin?” and to “What scale will the coming conflict be fought?” With increased sanctions and potentially a total halt in trade seeming more likely, North Korea will be backed into a corner. While our diplomacy may not be zero-sum, their response very well could be considering the inconsistency and instability of the present regime.
History is Our Guide
A prime example of this is the Japanese empire in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. As the Japanese cut across the Pacific on an imperialistic rampage, the world — and the United States — responded by cutting them off economically. The last and final string cut was Japanese access to foreign oil, which fueled their strategic advance across the Pacific Rim. With this valuable resource stripped away, they were placed in a precarious situation with two choices: either back down and halt their imperial conquering of the Pacific or strike first in an attempt to ensure victory, or at least a military edge, in the coming conflict. This, as we all know, ended in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
This situation has many of the same historic overtones. Though we may have time to attempt to avoid conflict, it very well may be inevitable. It’s hard to imagine that diplomatic talks will suddenly succeed after history has proven it to be so ineffective. Do we really believe that in five, ten, or twenty years we will be working with a stable North Korea unless drastic changes are made? Of course not. We must not fail to forget that we have a shared, bloody past with the Korean Peninsula.
In their very core, they hate America over the conflict we endured in the early 1950’s known as the Korean War. Those wounds have remained open for the North, and their dysfunction with America is more than political, it’s personal. I can only hope that while we continue our talks with North Korea we are in the process of doing exactly what they have been doing for decades: girding for war.
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