The death of Otto Warmbier after captivity in North Korea serves as a reminder—if anybody needed one—that the regime in Pyongyang is brutal as well as bizarre. What should the United States do? Sanctions can be ratcheted up, but the frustrating reality is that there is no available response to this outrage that is likely to produce meaningful results any time soon.

The longer-term problem with North Korea, of course, is its nuclear aspirations. Donald Trump, in his characteristic ignorance, apparently thought that China might be able to find a quick fix to the problem.   (According to the prez, “China tried,” but “it has not worked out.”) There is no quick fix, but, despite a lot of the talk we frequently hear about North Korea, there is no looming crisis either. I’ll summarize today’s post with four basic propositions.

  1. The world would be better off if North Korea did not further develop its nuclear weapons capabilities.
  2. North Korea has good reason to want to develop nukes.
  3. North Korea poses no serious threat to the United States.
  4. Like many foreign policy problems, this one has no easy solution, certainly not a military solution.


I’m going to assume that the first proposition is self-evident and needs no elaboration.

The second proposition, on the other hand, is likely to raise eyebrows. Why should North Korea want to have nuclear weapons? What will they do with them, if not make trouble, threatening their neighbors and others? One answer is that the North Koreans, like many other countries, could well think of nuclear weapons as critical defensive resources.

To grasp this answer, Americans might need to make a special effort, trying to look at the world from the North Korean leaders’ point of view. That’s not easy to do. The North Korean regime is rightly abhorrent to us. Empathetic understanding of tyrants doesn’t come easily. But let’s try: even a tyrant heading up a bizarre and brutally repressive regime might have reasonable defensive concerns, no? Is it so hard to understand why this tyrant and this regime might regard the world’s most powerful country—a country capable of vaporizing North Korea in a flash—as a threat? No one can deny that Americans widely view the North Korean regime with loathing. North Korea was famously listed by the President of the United States as one of three members of an axis of evil. We know what happened to another member of that trio—an American invasion led to the execution of Iraq’s longstanding tyrant and plunged that country into chaos. Another member of the trio—Iran—was in the neo-conservatives’ cross-hairs until it became clear that Iraq was more than enough to handle. Still another country—Libya—was plunged into chaos by US and Western intervention after its own tyrant—Muammar Qaddafi—was foolhardy enough to give up his nuclear ambitions. Qaddafi also met his end in that intervention, as Hillary Clinton gleefully observed. (“We came, we saw, he died.”) In short, the North Korean leaders don’t need to be paranoid to regard the United States as a threat.

There is also a deeper history worth mentioning. Three million Koreans lost their lives during the war with America in 1950-53. Most of the victims were civilians, mostly in the North, and mostly incinerated by American firepower. How many Americans know that our country systematically employed the massive destruction of civilian life as a core strategy of that war? Well, Koreans lived through it, and that kind of history tends to be remembered for a long time by the victims and their progeny.

So, I think you need to be very firmly attached to a determinedly one-sided perspective to deny that the North Koreans have good reason to aspire to nuclear weapons. Whatever else they are, nukes are a deterrent, and thus a great defensive resource.

My third proposition flies against today’s conventional wisdom. We’ve all heard that at some future time (maybe in 3 years, maybe 6? Nobody really knows.) North Korea will have the ability to lob a nuclear-armed missile or two as far as the California coast. But we almost never hear anybody ask the obvious question: Why in the world would the North Koreans ever want to nuke California? As repulsive as it is, there is absolutely no evidence that the North Korean regime is suicidal. And Kim Jong Un surely knows that any North Korean missile attack on the United States would be pitiably feeble compared to the massive retaliation it would bring on. So, yes, eventually, North Korean nukes will constitute one of many dangers we face in this dangerous world, but the danger doesn’t rise to the level of a major threat.

The fourth proposition is a simple recognition of a hard reality. Given that the North Koreans have good reason to want nukes, it won’t be easy to dissuade them. It will take patient diplomacy. It will require concessions from our side. (Such concessions might, for example, include a proposal for a firm non-aggression pact with the North Koreans, including a clear statement that we do not seek regime change in the North. Not pleasant, since in truth we’d all love to see regime change.) Ultimately, we may still get no agreement and have no alternative but to rely on deterrence, as we did for decades with the infinitely more powerful Soviet Union and China.

In any case, there is no urgency to solving the North Korea problem. There is no immediate threat to us and not even a serious long-term threat. There is certainly no justification for military action, which poses tremendous risks, not to this country, but to the South Koreans whom we are supposedly defending.



  1. Donald Campbell June 25, 2017 at 8:37 am

    As I recall Clinton made a deal with the North Koreans and their reactors were either decommissioned or under the purview of international inspectors. When Bush II was appointed he scuttled the agreement. Has a familiar ring?

    • tonygreco June 25, 2017 at 11:02 am

      Yes, it does. The North Koreans are widely condemned for not having lived up to the Clinton agreement, but the fact is, the Clinton administration had also failed to keep their side of the bargain.

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