The seemingly accepted wisdom that President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are paired madmen on the edge of war has little to support it other than projected fears. There will be no war because war on the Korean peninsula benefits no one and is very bad for everyone.
North Korea’s weapons, nuclear and conventional, are arguably the most defensive ever fielded. They have not been used offensively since 1953. They exist as a perfect example of how mutually assured destruction works.
Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is what kept the Cold War cool: the understanding that if either the United States or Russia unleashed nuclear weapons, both sides would be destroyed. The same applies today on the Korean Peninsula, where any significant conflict, including an invasion of the South, would mean the end of the North and the Kim dynasty. The United States and its allies would win any fight. Kim and everyone else with any stake in the North knows that. The nation of North Korea exists to exist, living proof of its own juche philosophy of self-reliance. It has no reason to start a war that would end in its own destruction. Its nuclear weapons are only useful if they are never used.
Talk of an American “surgical strike” ignores the reality that no amount of planning can ensure every weapon of mass destruction will be destroyed; if that was possible the United States would have done it years ago. Indeed, any attack on North Korea would result in a nuclear response—there is nothing “limited” for a cornered animal fighting for its life. While it’s unclear whether a North Korean missile could reach American territory, no one in Washington has ever been willing to bet the house that a submarine with a nuke, or special forces with a dirty bomb, couldn’t do significant damage to an American city—or to Seoul and Tokyo, both also, by the way, well within range of North Korean nuclear and conventional weapons.
So while the American mainland is not under threat of destruction by Pyongyang per se, war on the Korean Peninsula would inevitably destroy American allies South Korea and Japan, unleash radioactivity across the Pacific, and cripple the global economy. From Washington’s point of view, this is a state of mutually assured destruction. Deterrence works. Ask the Cold War.
All that’s left is the madman theory, the idea that Kim and Trump are irrational, impulsive figures who might one night say let’s push the button. The problem with this theory is that nothing really supports it.
The Kim dynasty has been in power some 70 years, three generations. They have weathered conventional conflicts, famine, crushing sanctions, internal strife, and hostile acts. They survived the fall of the Soviet Union, the transition of China to a pseudo-capitalist economy, and American governments from Truman to Trump. You don’t stay in power for seven decades acting irrationally or impulsively. You hold your own against multiple superpowers through careful action. And there is nothing in the current record to suggest the current Kim might act any more irrationally than his nuclear-armed dad did.
The Central Intelligence Agency agrees. A top official said Kim’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “There’s a clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong-un has done,” according to Yong Suk Lee of the Agency’s Korea Mission Center. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”
That leaves Trump as the last standing madman.
The problem is, after some 10 months, it’s hard to point to any irrational act, a decision made that is wholly without logic or reason, a choice Trump knew would have dire consequences yet went with anyway.
Forget the tweets; whatever they are, they have come to be seen by the world outside the media as inconsequential. They might be mean, stupid, crude, and un-presidential, but they have never added up to much more than steamy fodder for pop psychologists. Foreign governments have learned to leave them unanswered except for the occasional diplomatic snark. Trump’s been in office some 10 months and absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions have come to pass. So we end up back at the tweets, a long string of impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts.
In comparison, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in part because Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate his dad 12 years earlier. It was Bush’s nonsensical inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” that scuttled the last real attempt at nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush provocatively demanded regime change, a string of actions that led directly to the North going nuclear in 2003. Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong-il, as a pygmy.
President Obama started new American wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, re-entered the Iraq war, and surged in Afghanistan. He held weekly meetings where he decided which human beings across the globe would be snuffed out by drones, claiming “I’m really good at killing people.” With one failed exception, Obama avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning that the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North.
And yet the current commander-in-chief is the one most likely to start a war? So far he’s the only recent president who hasn’t.
With the exception of the Trump element, all the factors that will prevent war in 2017 have been preventing war in Korea for decades. There is nothing in the record, recent or historical, that supports the idea that Trump (or Kim) will one morning wake up for cocoa, push a button, and start World War III. It’s a rough, messy, incomplete version of peace, but we’ll learn to live with it.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of State. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.