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Why Is North Korea the United States’ Problem?

Doug Bandow

Seoul, Republic of Korea—Just 30 or so miles from the
Demilitarized Zone, which separates South and North Korea, sits
Seoul, the political, industrial, and population heart of the
Republic of Korea. It remains vulnerable to North Korean attack,
but is as chaotic as usual. Lately it has been convulsed by a
domestic political crisis, leading to the election of a new
left-wing president, Moon Jae-in, and foreign-policy challenges,
including China’s economic assault in retaliation for
deployment of the THAAD missile defense system.

Even more threatening, however, may be the Trump
administration’s confrontational stance toward the North. So
far most South Koreans assume President Donald Trump is bluffing
with his threats of war. Even so, tensions between the South and
U.S. are likely to rise, since President Moon advocates a much more
conciliatory policy toward Pyongyang. Moreover, President Trump
admits that he doesn’t know much about foreign
policy—as Chinese President Xi Jinping learned when the
latter patiently explained to his American counterpart
Beijing’s limited influence over North Korea. Anything could

Despite his ignorance, President Trump apparently is certain
that Pyongyang’s weapons programs are Washington’s
problem. Why? No one outside the borders of the Democratic
People’s Republic of Korea wants Kim Jong-un to have nukes at
his command. Washington officials are particularly insistent that
the North should not possess nuclear weapons atop ICBMs capable of
reaching the U.S. That prospect has pushed the Trump administration
into frenetic if not necessarily productive activity.

The price of America’s
reflexive defense of populous and prosperous allies is getting much

Yet it’s worth considering why the Kim regime is working
so hard to refine its nuclear technologies and expand its missile
capabilities. Such weapons are expensive and result in widespread
international opprobrium. But they offer important benefits as

Nukes would be useful in an offensive campaign against South
Korea, though not so long as the latter is defended by America.
Nuclear weapons offer prestige; otherwise no one else on earth
would much care about the status of the poor, isolated state. Nukes
also provide an opportunity for extortion. Although the message,
“Send money or else,” hasn’t been working well of

Finally, nuclear-tipped missiles provide a powerful deterrent.
Which North Korea has good reason to believe it needs.

A quick glance at a map illustrates that the North does not
threaten America. In fact, the Democratic People’s Republic
of Korea has never threatened America. The two nations do not share
a land border, so Pyongyang could not easily send its vast legions
to conquer the U.S., as in the last iteration of the movie Red
Dawn. The DPRK does not have a Blue Water navy, so no armada could
invest and invade Guam, let alone Hawaii. Since North Korea
possesses no long-range bombers, Kim’s air force could not
reduce U.S. cities to rubble. And even now the North does not have
ICBMs capable of reaching, let alone accurately targeting,

In the normal course of events, the Kim dynasty wouldn’t
give the U.S. much thought. North Koreans certainly wouldn’t
be feverishly working on weapons designed to threaten the global
superpower, which has the capability to incinerate Pyongyang many
times over.

However, Washington has been threatening the North for 67

Of course, U.S. officials believe they had good reason to do so.
The inter-Korean struggle initially mattered to America because it
was an important front in the Cold War. Without U.S. intervention
the Republic of Korea would have been swallowed by Kim
Il-sung’s army, disappearing into a modern form of the Dark
Ages. Even after formal hostilities ended, the U.S. presence was
initially necessary to protect the ROK, a war-ravaged,
impoverished, and unstable dictatorship.

Washington placed infantry and armored units on the
North’s border, capable of invading North Korea, as they did
during the Korean War. Washington-based aircraft throughout the
region capable of bombing North Korea, as they did during the
Korean War. And Washington deployed naval vessels capable of
conducting operations against North Korea, as they did during the
Korean War. Indeed, the U.S. threatened to go to war against the
DPRK whenever Washington deemed it necessary or appropriate.

In the post-Cold War world, the threat to Pyongyang only
increased. North Korea essentially lost its allies. After the
Soviet breakup, Moscow initiated a friendly relationship with South
Korea. The People’s Republic of China followed suit. Neither
would likely go to war with America on the North’s behalf.
The DPRK almost certainly would be alone in any crisis.

Moreover, Washington took on the role of global dominatrix,
effectively dividing the world into two camps: countries which bomb
other countries and countries which get bombed. And the latter
group is mostly, though not entirely, made up of countries which
get bombed by the U.S.

In recent decades Washington has imposed regime change on a
succession of nations. Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Somalia (to the
extent there was a regime to change), Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
The U.S. became a de facto co-belligerent with Saudi Arabia
attempting to do the same in Yemen. American officials used more
limited force, mostly aid to insurgents, with less success to do
the same in Nicaragua and Syria. The U.S. went to war to prevent
ethnic Serbs from breaking up Bosnia and then intervened to break
up the state of Serbia. Even now Washington routinely threatens war
against Iran.

Then there is North Korea, enemy of an American treaty ally,
international outcast, and member of the infamous Axis of Evil,
with leaders loathed in Washington. Could there be a better
candidate for regime change? It is a good example of the dictum
that even paranoids have enemies.

All of which makes North Korean missile and nuclear programs a
logical response to a dangerous security environment. And explains
Pyongyang’s current focus on America, punctuated by typically
hyperbolic outbursts. (In contrast, the DPRK does not threaten to
turn Moscow, Berlin, Bern, Abuja, Johannesburg, New Delhi,
Brasilia, and most other national capitals into lakes of fire.) The
Kims from DPRK founder Kim Il-sung down through grandson Kim
Jong-un have given no indication of being suicidal. They almost
certainly would prefer to stay out of America’s way. But if
they can’t, then they obviously see creating and flaunting a
nuclear deterrent as the next best policy.

Put simply, Trump administration officials are running around
Washington warning that missiles, if not the sky, may end up
falling because the U.S. has chosen to intervene in the
inter-Korean struggle. That involvement is a matter of choice.
America actually does not have to police every region of the globe
forever. Certainly Washington should take into account the cost in
deciding on future policy.

And that price in Korea could soon include facing a nuclear
power with a leadership that is to some degree impulsive, paranoid,
and reckless. (Not so different, ironically, than America’s
present administration.) While the DPRK would not likely attack the
U.S. without provocation, what would count as the latter?

Any attempt to destroy the North’s WMDs or decapitate the
regime would probably be reckless. Today military action would be a
wild gamble because the North possesses the conventional capability
to rain death and destruction down upon Seoul, South Korea’s
capital. If the Kim regime could do the same on American cities,
preventative war would disappear as an option for U.S.

Pyongyang might also view a much-enhanced attempt to strangle
the North economically as an existential threat. And what of
conventional military involvement by the U.S. in a conflict on the
Korean peninsula, however it began? Certainly there could be no
drive to the Yalu, even after defeating another North Korean

Indeed, the U.S. would face many of the same limits that it did
when confronting the Soviet Union. Any military action
would become more dangerous, and thus less likely, if American
cities could be annihilated.

Which suggests that the U.S. should consider a dual-track
response to the North’s weapons development. First, continue
discouraging North Korean acquisition of nukes and missiles.

But even greater reliance on Beijing remains a long-shot.
Pyongyang might choose to go it alone, irrespective of the cost,
and survive. Moreover, the Trump administration has yet to assuage
China’s understandable concerns over destabilizing the North
as well as contributing to Beijing’s own containment by
ultimately creating a united Korea allied with America.

Second, Washington should disengage militarily from the
peninsula. South Korea has dramatically outpaced the North on every
measure of national power other than military, and the latter
remains a matter of choice. The Republic of Korea sees no reason to
spend more if Washington is willing to do so. That’s a good
deal for Seoul, but not America. At the very least the U.S. should
devolve responsibility for the ROK’s conventional defense
onto the ROK. Doing so would eliminate an important scenario for
confrontation with a nuclear-armed North and opportunity for
tensions with different governments in the South.

Moreover, Washington should consider the heretofore unthinkable:
a South Korean nuclear deterrent to the North. Certainly
that’s not a desirable outcome, but dealing with the DPRK
yields only second-best solutions. For America, nothing at stake in
the Korean peninsula is worth nuclear war. The U.S. should not
consider sacrificing Los Angeles or Seattle for Seoul—or
Tokyo, for that matter. If such a trade becomes a real (though
still, hopefully, unlikely) possibility, Washington policymakers
have an obligation to the American people to rethink current

A nuclear North Korea is bad news. One capable of striking
America is even more dangerous. But by intervening in the Korean
peninsula Washington helped create and sustain the DPRK nuclear
threat. Instead of threatening war, the Trump administration should
take a military step back. The price of America’s reflexive
defense of populous and prosperous allies is getting much

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant
to President Ronald Reagan.