Eric Gomez very ably sums up why the Trump administration’s North Korea policy can’t succeed at an acceptable cost:
The current U.S. strategy requires offensively-oriented policy approaches in the pursuit of an unrealistic end goal. In order to achieve denuclearization, Washington must compel Kim Jong-un to part with his nuclear weapons by making the costs of possessing nukes unacceptably high. However, because Kim views nuclear weapons as necessary for the survival of his regime, he is willing to tolerate very high costs in order to keep his nuclear weapons. Short of going to war, it will be practically impossible for the United States to impose a high enough level of cost that compels Kim to denuclearize because possessing nuclear weapons is a matter of life or death in Kim’s mind.
I have said something similar many times, so I agree with this assessment. I would just add that eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs is not a good enough reason for the U.S. to go to war, especially when that war promises to be devastating and extremely bloody. The great danger of the administration’s current policy is that it effectively rules out everything other than a U.S. attack on the DPRK, and the more that an attack seems likely to happen the greater the likelihood that North Korea will strike first. Insisting on denuclearization makes a war that could include the use of nuclear weapons more rather than less likely to happen. Judged on its own terms, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy is a failure. Judged by its likely consequences, it is a disaster in the making.
Gomez is correct when he says that the Trump administration “should put aside its quixotic goal of denuclearization and focus its efforts on deterring the first use of a nuclear weapon by North Korea.” This will require Trump and McMaster, among others, to recognize that denuclearization isn’t going to happen at an acceptable cost, and they will need to walk back their dismissals of deterrence publicly. No administration wants to have to eat its words on a major issue, but the alternative is to continue down a path that leads to failure or the start of a major war.
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