One of the top stories of 2017 is the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear missile power. This was not a great surprise. North Korea has sought a nuclear weapon since at least the 1980s, and its program has been pretty serious since the early 1990s. Nevertheless, it always seemed that considerable hurdles—technical, logistical, financial, intellectual—stood in the way.
Now it appears North Korea can launch a missile all the way to North America, and President Donald Trump has elevated the issue to one of his chief priorities. He has used tough language against the North Koreans, at some points appearing to threaten a massive, possibly nuclear, strike. This has created much alarmism and paranoia that war is imminent. But there is little empirical indication that this is so. I live in South Korea, and while there is much rumor, there has been no new stationing here of major U.S. assets. The military aircraft units necessary for an airstrike are not moving in. The armada Trump threatened in the spring still has not arrived. Leaves of U.S. soldiers are not being canceled. Noncombatants are not being evacuated. In short, a glaring gap has opened between the reality in South Korea and Trump’s warlike rhetoric.
At some point, the Western media will catch on and begin to report despite the Trumpian bombast, war is unlikely. Indeed, the president recently passed up his best chance to lay the public opinion groundwork for a strike in a speech to the parliament of South Korea. South Korean cooperation, if not open support, is vital for any such strike. Many of the necessary military assets are there, and South Koreans would bear the brunt of any Northern retaliation. Yet Trump did not use the opportunity to lobby for war or even a limited airstrike. Instead, he promoted the decades-old U.S. effort to contain, deter, isolate and sanction the North. If Trump isn’t bothering to sell an attack to the South, then the likelihood, no matter what he says on Twitter, is that he will not strike.
The reason, after all the noise about how we cannot tolerate a nuclear North Korea, is that we can. For many years, the United States has put up with three other countries whom we deeply distrust—Russia, China and Pakistan—having nuclear weapons. Only once, in Cuba in 1962, did we consider blocking a nuclear expansion with military force. The result was the terrifying Cuban Missile Crisis. And while the U.S. arguably won that standoff, it so unnerved U.S. decision-makers, as well as the rest of the planet, that it never repeated the exercise. When China developed nuclear missiles in the 1960s and ’70s, we did not interfere, even though China was going through the tumult of the Cultural Revolution. Similarly, when Pakistan nuclearized in the 1990s, the U.S. did not intervene, even though Pakistan had, and still has, serious Islamic fundamentalism problems.
In each instance, a state in deep ideological opposition to the U.S.—Stalinist, Maoist and Islamic fundamentalist—acquired nuclear weapons and set off an anxious discussion in the U.S. about “fanatics” with the world’s worst weapons. Yet the alternatives were even worse. Airstrikes on China would have set the whole of East Asia ablaze; dropping Special Forces into Pakistan to hijack its weapons—an idea briefly considered—would have been a near-suicide mission; striking the “Islamic bomb” might have sparked a regional Muslim revolt. In all cases, U.S. officials found the risks of action outweighed by the risks of trying to manage the new status quo. In time, Washington adapted.
This is almost certainly what will happen with North Korea. Once again, “fanatics” have acquired the bomb, and nightmare scenarios of a nuclear war abound. Yet there is little indication that the North Koreans seek these weapons for offensive purposes. Striking the U.S. with a nuclear weapon would clearly lead to the North’s rapid destruction. The Northern elite are not suicidal. Instead, it appears that they wish to survive. Indeed, they have pointed out that if Saddam Hussein or Muammar el-Qaddafi had had nuclear weapons, they would be alive today.
There are strike options, but the possible consequences, including a Sino-U.S. war and the regional use of nuclear weapons, are so dire that we have always demurred. The North has taken major provocative actions at least six times since 1968, and we have never struck back. The reasons then are the same as they are today: North Korea could devastate Seoul with conventional artillery in retaliation; North Korea has a defensive treaty with China; the North would immediately respond to any U.S. airstrike with human shields; North Korea has been tunneling in preparation for war for decades, requiring a U.S. air campaign so large it would effectively be a war—there is realistically no surgical strike option; now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, it could respond to U.S. action by using those weapons.
In brief, the risks associated with a U.S. strike on North Korea are high and have just gotten higher with the North’s progress on nuclear missiles. Just as we grudgingly learned to live with Soviet, Chinese and Pakistani nuclearization, I predict we will learn the same with North Korea—even if our leaders will not admit it publicly for some time.
Robert Kelly is a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea.