The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts tried to make the most of Labor Day weekend, attending quite the number of cookouts and get-togethers. At each of them, someone asked a variant of the same question: “How worried should I be about war with North Korea?”
I have been on the receiving end of a lot of queries like this since Donald Trump became president. It feels like the degree apocalyptic fretting has surged in 2017. As someone who has studied this issue, I get the concern. But there are times when it reminds me of this Ashley Parker NYT story from 2011, about the children of apocalypse cult parents. Which is to say that even though the world is not likely to end, the fear that it will has deleterious real-world consequences.
In the interest of pre-empting further queries along these lines, and as a public service to other international relations scholars tasked with talking to family and friends about their day job, here’s my short answer: I think everything will be okay.
Here’s my longer answer: There’s a chance that things could go south very quickly, but that chance is not worth all the perseveration.
On North Korea specifically: Back in February I outlined the basic plot of any North Korea crisis. See if this sounds familiar:
- North Korea takes provocative action against the United States and violent action against a possible domestic threat? Check and check.
- Statements and news conferences in which the U.S. and its regional allies pledge to coordinate against North Korea? Check and check. This might be the most normal thing Trump has done as president, actually.
- The U.N. Security Council clears its throat in disapproval.
- China announces that it’s going to impose new economic sanctions on North Korea, leading to stories suggesting that it might actually be serious this time.
- Follow-up analyses of the Chinese announcement suggest that maybe the sanctions aren’t as potent as first thought.
- A recognition dawns on analysts that as problematic and exasperating as North Korea is to China, an intact DPRK is still better than all the other possible alternatives from Beijing’s point of view.
- Even conservative analyses of the situation on the Korean Peninsula conclude that the United States does not have a lot of great policy alternatives except to tighten sanctions a wee bit more, accelerate the deployment of missile defenses on the peninsula, and pledge support to regional allies.
- Wait a few months, then North Korea triggers Step 1 and the whole cycle repeats.
That is basically how the plot played out three weeks ago and it is likely to play out that way this time as well (right now we’re between steps 3 and 4). The only difference is that by now it is unclear whether the Trump White House or KCNA will make the most hyperbolic statement.
Unless and until China changes its policy preferences on North Korea, the only thing worse than the status quo is … almost every other option. Sure, sanctions can and should be sharpened, and other pressure instruments can be brought to bear. I doubt any of them will pressure Pyongyang to make any tangible concessions. Any country willing to starve its own population will not buckle because of economic pressure.
Talking with the North Koreans is certainly another possibility, but I doubt it will be fruitful. Among other problems, the Trump administration has displayed such confusing rhetoric on the DPRK that I doubt Pyongyang would trust any proposed deal.
As for a military option, let’s just go to Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang over at War on the Rocks:
Sunday’s test is perhaps the clearest signal that North Korea’s interest in voluntary denuclearization is a Western fantasy. Attempting to denuclearize North Korea by force would require a surprise attack by the United States — one that already makes Pyongyang wary of American B-1B Lancer sorties from Andersen Air Force Base at Guam that may one day be a prelude to such an attack. There is no guarantee that the United States could find and destroy all of Kim’s nuclear systems, and thus it leaves the United States and its allies in the region open to unacceptably high conventional and nuclear retaliatory risk. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now: Any war with North Korea will be a nuclear war. Realistically, this is now out of the question.
The current status quo is not great. Changing the status quo is not likely to make the situation any better and very likely to make things worse.
I get the sense that many Americans have such little faith in the Trump administration that they are sure this situation will escalate. But it is worth remembering that Trump has deferred to the military on almost every security issue that has cropped up during his administration. And this is a security issue in which the U.S. military is not eager to escalate.
Acting as if the world is going to blow itself up is not a terribly productive way to spend one’s days. I prefer Nick Fury’s kind of contingency planning:
Enjoy the last days of summer. Send your kids to school. Buy your groceries for the week. Assume that the Earth will continue to rotate. If your assumption is correct, these are good plans to make.
If your assumption is incorrect, it really will not matter.