While the nation’s and the world’s attention was drawn to the senseless murders in Las Vegas of at least 59 and the wounding of 527 more last week, the Korean crisis continued to build, as both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump trash talked each other.
Unfortunately, while neither side wants war, neither side is willing to back down and make concessions.
There seems to be three possible options, two of which are very bad, and the third is very risky.
The first option: attack North Korea with bombings to destroy its nuclear arsenal and launch an attempt to decapitate the government leader, Kim Jung Un. Both would be difficult to attain. Recall back to the early 2000s to remember how difficult it was to find and kill Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.
Since Donald Trump’s approach is “America First,” the implication is that South Korea’s millions who live along the 38th parallel are “collateral damage” for the greater good of the U.S. and the world. North Korea’s artillery could kill millions in the first two weeks of a war before they could be silenced by U.S. bombing.
In addition, it’s possible the Chinese would enter the fray if the U.S. launched an all-out attack on North Korea. That’s what they did back in the early 1950s. The Chinese saw the peninsula occupied by the major world power as an existential threat. At least 400,000 Chinese soldiers died, as well as at least 726,000 Koreans (North and South) and 36,000 American/U.N. soldiers. Destruction was enormous, leaving both Koreas in ruins. The Chinese now possess nuclear missiles, which means the risk of World War III lurks over the horizon.
The second option: Accept the fact that North Korea has been successful in creating nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the entire U.S. The only response to this option is to revert back to MAD, mutually assured destruction, of the Cold War era where neither the U.S. nor North Korea dares to attack the other lest the retaliation destroy both nations.
Allowing for this scenario would cause a Domino Effect. Japan and South Korea, now within range of North Korean missiles and insecure that President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine will protect them in case of an attack, would be forced to develop nuclear missiles in self-defense.
In addition, because of North Korea’s success, Kim Jong Un would be able to export his nuclear bomb and ICBM technology to other small, weak nations who are fearful of the United States and anxious to feel secure. Under this scenario nuclear weapons would proliferate all over the world, increasing the chances of someone setting off a nuclear war either by accident or by some maddened terrorist who would destroy life on earth.
The third option is based upon two aspects of Trump’s personality. He’s a bully and he knows how to create uncertainty among the world’s leaders, especially Xi Jing Ping and Kim Jong Un. China has put unprecedented pressure on North Korea’s economy, stopping the importation of North Korea’s major exports. This will bring North Korea’s economy to its knees. Xi is nervous because he doesn’t know whether Trump will follow through with his threats to destroy North Korea.
Trump understands how Kim, another bully, thinks. He has returned every one of Kim’s threats with even greater threats of his own. Kim doesn’t want to die; in fact he’s terrified of dying. Like all bullies, he’s a coward.
It’s just possible that Kim will cave to Trump and to China’s pressure if he can receive a guarantee of his own survival and the preservation of his regime.
The third option is a risky approach, but previous presidents’ policies of strategic patience have failed. Logic and reason don’t work well with bullies, while Trump’s approach may actually bring about major North Korean concessions.
If Trump is wrong, the recent senseless massacre in Las Vegas will pale in comparison to the potential nuclear wars with either Option One or Option Two. Let’s hope Trump can pull it off. The survival of the world hangs in the balance.
Richard Elfers is a professor at the Green River College.