In a grotesque parody of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s regular statements promising to bathe the United States and its regional compatriots in “a sea of fire,” President Trump announced early August that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Trump issued similar threats over this past labor day weekend after Pyongyang potentially detonated a hydrogen bomb underground. Unfortunately, Trump’s threat to annihilate twenty five million people is precisely the sort of thing the world has come to expect from the irascible and impulsive president who, like all presidents, has the unchecked, unilateral, and instantaneous capability to order a nuclear launch. The clear hazard of an impulsive U.S. president who cares more about short-term PR than anything else in the world, however, affords the broader public an opportunity for a sober reevaluation of U.S.-North Korean relations for the first time in decades.
It is now time to drastically rethink U.S. policy towards North Korea and begin negotiations with a substantive first-move gesture of goodwill through sanctions relief and expression of a desire to end the formal status of war between the two countries. These efforts would be geared towards re-establishing a direct diplomatic relationship to find avenues to reduce tension.
The perpetuation of the current state of affairs between the United States and North Korea makes nuclear war all but inevitable. Between the Soviet Union and the United States, there were numerous incidents of close calls for nuclear apocalypse from human error, computer glitches, poor communication, and erroneous intelligence. Over a long enough timespan with an even more bellicose adversary - in light of periodic unprovoked fatal North Korean hostilities directed at South Korean targets - than the Soviet Union, these issues are unavoidable and through enough iterations will eventually cause one side or the other to pull the trigger.
Setting aside the most important and self-evident argument against war with Pyongyang on moral grounds, the United States is simply not in a position to successfully prevent a nuclear attack from North Korea against Seoul or Tokyo.
For some in the military policymaker community, the escalation of a militaristic nihilism to its irradiated apotheosis might be the ideal outcome, but it seems that many officials suffer delusions that the U.S. has the capability to stop a North Korean nuclear launch or simply cannot fathom North Korea’s ballistic missile technology. After all, these same officials told the American public for years that North Korea was light years away from having the requisite technology to accurately launch long-range missiles for which North Korea has recently demonstrated a near-term capability. Now, of course, these same officials are loathe to articulate a policy for which the best case doesn’t end in millions of lost lives, ecological disaster, and a global human health catastrophe in a geographic scope unprecedented in the history of warfare since 1945.
Since the American-led collapse of the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea in the late 90s, the primary vectors of pressure that the U.S. has applied to North Korea to prevent the escalation of the state’s nuclearization have been a combination of tacit and explicit military threat and economic sanctions.
While the effectiveness of military threats to prevent Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons speaks for itself, sanctions are a more murky policy avenue.
There is very little research to support the idea that sanctions are an effective policy to alter states’ behavior and, more importantly, there is there no evidence for the widely-held theory that economic sanctions are necessarily more humane than war. While it should be conceded Iran certainly came to the negotiating table partially as a result of monetary inflation and pressure caused by wide multilateral sanctions, the bulk of economic sanctions’ impact from present-day Russia to Cuba to Saddam’s Iraq demonstrates not only the ineffectiveness of sanctions, but also their benign cruelty. Even granting that North Korea could be one of the rare success stories for the coercive measure, the analogy is wholly flawed since North Korea has already achieved first-strike Nuclear capability and, functionally, second-strike inasmuch as the U.S. officials are unsure of the number of weapons North Korea possesses and are doubtful that Washington would be able to remove North Korean nuclear weapons from the country’s intricate cave networks and the country’s alleged ballistic missile launch capable submarines.
There is no alternative to negotiations and diplomacy other than war. Sanctions have failed and a persistent threat of annihilation from both sides - although only one has the capability - has done nothing but help it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fortunately for the United States, the only thing the government has to lose is a reputation for diplomatic bellicosity and some measure of pride for the D.C. wonk class. Sure, softening sanctions and entering negotiations will be viewed as appeasement and/or an encouragement for other states to nuclearize by the ever-wise neoconservative movement that brought us the perpetual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but their anxiety is immaterial in light of preventing nuclear apocalypse. Moreover, a less bullish U.S. Foreign Policy may, in fact, lead to an amelioration of U.S. hostility overseas in other avenues.