Preventative War: The One Way Donald Trump Could Lose Against North Korea
President Trump’s highly anticipated summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un is an off-again, on-again affair. A week ago the president cited Kim’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” in canceling his meeting with the North Korean leader. Though it was perhaps only a negotiating tactic, Trump’s stated desire to strike a deal for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” looked to be a bust. Now, newly minted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scrambling to save the summit.
Lost in this flurry of activity is that, while denuclearization would be a good and welcomed turn of events, U.S. national security doesn’t require a denuclearization deal. The reality is that America is—and will remain—secure with or without an agreement. This means that, in the absence of a deal, military action to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program is not a necessary next step.
In his letter to Kim Jong-un, President Trump stated, “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” Whether he intended to or not, the president stated exactly why—even with nuclear weapons—North Korea is not an existential threat: deterrence.
The essence of nuclear deterrence is straightforward. By having sufficient nuclear weapons, the United States is able to deter any other country from attacking its homeland because it could respond with utterly devastating effect.
During the Cold War against the former Soviet Union, this was the reality of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD may not be our actual nuclear military doctrine or targeting strategy, but it is the reality of the capability of the United States’ strategic nuclear arsenal.
Kim Jong-un faces this inescapable reality. He knows that if he launches a nuclear weapon against the United States—a capability that we do not believe he has just yet—the U.S. could retaliate with enough force that the result would be total annihilation. In other words, any nuclear attack, regardless of how large or small, would be suicidal. Hence why the Kim dynasty has repeatedly demonstrated that its larger interest is its own survival—not suicide.
That Kim Jong-un understands deterrence is evidenced by the fact that, although North Korea has had nuclear weapons for more than a decade, they have never used them against their non-nuclear neighbors South Korea and Japan. This is presumably because the threat of a U.S. nuclear response hangs over Pyongyang’s head.
Most importantly, knowing that deterrence works means that even if Kim is unwilling to give up his nuclear weapons, his “treasured sword” (something that is almost certainly true), a failed deal on denuclearization leaves us with the status quo—and that may be the best possible outcome in the short run.
The only way America loses is if Washington launches a preventative war to remove Kim’s nuclear capability when we have no credible intelligence whatsoever of an imminent first strike against South Korea or Japan, let alone the United States. Indeed, no one is suggesting we need to launch a preventative war to take out Russia’s or China’s nuclear capabilities.
Yet that is exactly what Vice President Pence recently intimated. Just days before President Trump cancelled the summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, the vice president told Fox News: “You know, there was some talk of the Libyan model last week. And as the president made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal.”
The “Libya model” for North Korea was previously suggested by new national security advisor John Bolton, who is an advocate of regime change and previously made an argument for preventative war against North Korea.
The irony, of course, is that Moammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear ambitions ostensibly in exchange for his security via the lifting of economic sanctions and more normalized relations with the West, yet nonetheless found himself on the receiving end of a U.S.-led regime change operation. So Kim Jong-un likely views that “Libya model” as a lose-lose proposition. As such, the White House shouldn’t have been so surprised that the North Korean reaction was angry and hostile.
While the canceled (for now) summit is a lost opportunity, it is not cause for alarm and does not mean we are in dire straits. There is already talk that Trump and Kim may meet as planned on June 12. Either way, we are no better or worse off than before.
North Korea is an extremely poor country that poses no direct military threat to America. The United States’ gross domestic product is more than 300 times larger than North Korea’s—over $14 trillion compared to $40 billion. The U.S. Department of Defense budget is more than 10 times the size of North Korea’s entire economy and some 50 times larger than North Korea’s military expenditures. And the vastly superior U.S. strategic nuclear force is a powerful deterrent against far greater powers, like Russia and China, let alone North Korea’s nascent nuclear capabilities.
Summit or no summit, the art of the deal with North Korea is that even without a deal, America’s national security remains intact. Donald Trump should remember that going forward.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.