Tags: north korea | kim jong un | donald trump | nuclear

On North Korea, American Inaction Is Justifiable

Image: On North Korea, American Inaction Is Justifiable
A man walks in front of a news video reporting North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in Tokyo on April 16, 2017. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

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Tuesday, 09 May 2017 01:51 PM Current | Bio | Archive

President Obama warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be his biggest problem. But Obama was probably wrong. Just what problem does North Korea pose, how serious is it, and what could we do about it without making things worse?

North Korea is developing atomic weapons able to strike nearby countries and perhaps, ultimately, America. This is sobering, but that does not make it a serious problem. The Soviet Union was able to bomb the United States for 40 years but did not attack and could not have without suffering crushing retaliation.

Is there any reason to think a North Korea able to bomb us would actually do so? Why couldn't our massive retaliatory capacity deter it too from conducting such a strike?

As President Trump recently noted, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is probably an intelligent man. There is no evidence that he is crazy. Cold-blooded, yes. Willing to kill family members he considers a threat to his power, yes. But crazy, no, except perhaps like a fox.

Kim Jong Un says he wants atomic weapons in order to deter us from attacking his country, and there are good reasons to believe he is telling the truth. What else would he want them for? Does anybody seriously believe that North Korea has ambitions to take over the world?

Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, would not have to be paranoid to fear that we seek to overthrow him. He knows that by our standards his is a totalitarian, undemocratic, government. He knows that we have frequently overthrown or supported attempts to overthrow regimes we consider bad: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Ukraine, and most recently, Syria.

America has long been squeezing North Korea, but offering to relax economic boycotts if it gives up atomic weapons. Economic pressure, though, can't make North Korea give up its weapons and may not even hurt its economy. Indeed, recent reports suggest the economy is making notable progress, and the leadership is inching towards Chinese-style economic reforms that could produce spectacular gains.

The real problem here, though, is the prevailing assumption that whenever we have a problem we ought to “do something” about it. If we want to “do something” about Korea we will have to use force, which President Trump says is not “off the table.” But bombing probably couldn't destroy the atomic threat. It would cause immense harm to North Koreans and also to South Koreans against whom North Korea would likely retaliate. And nobody in Washington, D.C. is crazy enough to suggest landing paratroopers followed by a massive, prolonged occupation of the whole country.

The North Korea problem is therefore one where the best thing to do is to do nothing, since the alternatives are all worse. We must just rely on our retaliatory capacity to deter North Korean use of atomic weapons.

This said, there are useful policy changes we could make that would apply generally but have specific applicability to North Korea.

We could announce we will no longer try to overthrow bad regimes, since it is nearly impossible to replace them with better ones. We could announce that government improvements should be secured by their own people, hopefully by reforms rather than uprisings or civil wars. As the Soviet Union and South Africa showed, even terrible regimes can be reformed from within. We could show some understanding that the North Korean government is not the fault of Kim Jong Un, since he took over a going concern, and that even if he wants to reform it he will have to do so gradually and cautiously.

We could announce that we will extend diplomatic recognition to all governments willing to deal with us and happily negotiate mutually beneficial deals. We could end economic pressure on North Korea and encourage it to develop more contacts with the outer world. It might even be possible for Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un to meet, as Trump recently suggested.

Relaxation of pressure might even reassure North Korean leaders enough that they would cut back on producing atomic weapons. But if they wanted to waste money, that would be their problem, not ours.

I think it was Otto von Bismarck who sarcastically opined we shouldn't try to solve all problems once and forever, since this would make life too dull for our grandchildren. Our grandchildren needn't worry, but perhaps we can teach them how to live with insoluble problems and to recognize when these problems are things they can live with.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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President Obama warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be his biggest problem. But Obama was probably wrong. Just what problem does North Korea pose, how serious is it, and what could we do about it without making things worse?
north korea, kim jong un, donald trump, nuclear
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2017-51-09
Tuesday, 09 May 2017 01:51 PM
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