Stop Giving North Korea a Pass
The Trump administration has withdrawn the nomination of Victor Cha as U.S. ambassador to South Korea because of policy differences over North Korea. Cha opposes any preventive use of force — the "bloody nose" scenario — except in response to an actual or imminent attack on the territory or forces of the United States, Japan, or South Korea. He has stated his position in a recent Washington Post op-ed and in interviews.
Cha argues that a preventive strike “would only delay North Korea's missile-building and nuclear programs, which are buried in deep, unknown places impenetrable to bunker-busting bombs.” He seems to assume a one-shot big-bomb detonation but does not consider the deeper penetration enabled by follow-on raids.
He further asserts: “A strike also would not stem the threat of proliferation but rather exacerbate it, turning what might be a North Korean moneymaking endeavor into a vengeful effort intended to equip other bad actors against us.”
But Pyongyang is already selling nuclear and missile technology to adversarial regimes for the dual purpose of earning cash and undermining Western security: The enemy of my enemy is my preferred customer is the basic idea, and China and Russia share that hostile philosophy.
Cha’s concerns would apply equally to either a responsive or a pre-emptive U.S. strike.
Cha challenges the cautious confidence of some administration officials that a preventive strike will work. “Hope must give in to logic,” he argues — but then he adds a surprisingly illogical non sequitur: “If we believe that Kim is undeterable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?” The obvious answer to the rhetorical question: Not paying a price for dangerous misbehavior invites more of it; paying a painful price tends to discourage repetition.
Cha states: “Some have argued the risks are still worth taking because it's better that people die ‘over there’ than ‘over here.’” No administration official has made such a callous statement — one that would disregard the tens of thousands of Korean and American lives that are at risk in any armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula — but everyone agrees a North Korean nuclear strike would kill many more.
If the president ordered a preventive attack, Cha asserts, he “would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city - Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati.” But the murderous North Korean dictator is already threatening American cities with nuclear annihilation and is dangerously close to being able to do it.
Cha proposes “an alternative coercive strategy . . . likely to deliver the same potential benefits as a limited strike, along with other advantages, without the self-destructive costs.” But, curiously, three of the four elements of his alternative approach are already being implemented by the administration: enhanced international sanctions against North Korea, strengthening alliance cooperation with Japan and South Korea, and “continu[ing] to prepare military options.”
The only arguable advance in U.S. policy Cha offers is “a maritime coalition around North Korea involving rings of South Korean, Japanese and broader U.S. assets to intercept any nuclear missiles or technologies leaving the country.” This is a reduced version of the total economic blockade of North Korea Henry Kissinger once proposed as a joint U.S.-China effort.
This meritorious idea would constitute a tightening of the existing world-wide Proliferation Security Initiative that requires countries to inspect and seize such contraband materials leaving or entering North Korea. The effort is joined by 195 nations — but not China.
As for China, and Russia, Cha warns they “should be prepared to face the consequences if they allow North Korean proliferation across their borders.” Of course, both powers are already doing that without significant consequences, and Cha does not suggest any other consequences beyond what the administration is already imposing.
Therein lies the fatal flaw in Cha’s “alternative coercive strategy.” It fails to come to grips with the underlying cause of North Korea’s seeming immunity to diplomatic pressures, economic sanctions, and empty threats: the protective and enabling role of China, and to a lesser extent, Russia. Until Washington gets tough with Beijing and Moscow, they will not get tough with Pyongyang.
The Trump administration has done far better than its predecessors in recognizing that reality and starting to take corrective measures. But China and Russia are still paying a woefully insufficient diplomatic and economic price for enabling the North Korean regime as it creates an existential threat to America and its allies.
Cha and other Asia scholars, as well as prior administrations and presumably many members of this one, are reluctant to confront China (or Moscow) in uncomfortably serious ways, for fear of igniting a new Cold War. Yet that kind of malign competition is already being waged against us by regimes that consider America their natural adversary. Imposing a greater cost on them now seems the only way to motivate more responsible international behavior and to stave off eventual conflict with North Korea, whether preventive, preemptive, or responsive.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-2006, and is a fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s own.