The old Danish folk tale Henny Penny (Chicken Little, in the US) brings us the familiar catch phrase “The sky is falling,” a metaphor for impending disaster. The implosion of talks between the United States and North Korea does indeed give that impression.
President Donald Trump has invested US prestige and taken political risks by praising the North Korean dictator in anticipation of changes in North Korean behavior.
If there is a falling sky, it is the United States operating without a functional strategy that accounts for North Korean perfidy.
Most of the ideas floating around suggest new, bigger and better offers to North Korea. At the United Nations, China and Russia proposed lifting a ban on North Korean exports of seafood and textiles and easing restrictions on infrastructure projects and on North Koreans working overseas. Jessica Lee of the Quincy Institute suggested, “The US should offer partial sanctions relief, declare the end of the Korean War, and offer to open a liaison office in Pyongyang in exchange for concrete steps by North Korea to suspend all weapons-related nuclear activities over a period of 12 months.”
Given that the US State Department has already rejected the China/Russia bid, Lee’s suggestions are unlikely to find much support.
On the other hand, the Trump administration may be coming to realize that a nuclear deal with North Korea could be impossible. Not only have the North Koreans sent US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun home, refusing to meet with him, but the recent missile tests and construction activities around sensitive sites in the country have put the White House on notice that the North Koreans are in urgent pursuit of both their ICBM and nuclear programs.
Complicating the picture is the impasse with Seoul on funding US troops in South Korea. It seems Seoul wants Washington to continue to pay for its defense, although it can easily afford to support collective security. The unpleasant rebuff of Trump comes even as America’s NATO allies have begun increasing their alliance contributions.
Much of the argument isn’t actually about money but about anti-American attitudes in various presumed allied countries.
Trump’s frustration with America’s allies (the snarky video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau castigating the president for an impromptu press conference that made him late for cocktails didn’t help the allies), problems with competitors Russia and China, plus “rogue” nations including Iran and North Korea – all these certainly incline Americans to pull away from international responsibilities.
The swelling problems raise a very immediate question about how Trump should proceed with North Korea, if at all. He is likely aware that negative intelligence about North Korea’s intentions exists that will surely leak out if he gives too many concessions to Pyongyang, and he risks the support of his political base (including independent voters) who oppose helping North Korea and Kim Jong Un.
One option is for the US to accept that North Korea already is a nuclear power and act accordingly.
That could prompt the United States to strengthen missile defenses well beyond the questionable systems now deployed.
The president might make a major impression by demanding new, layered missile defenses capable of dealing with a wide range of emerging threats, not only from North Korea but also China and Russia. Better technology exists, but the American continent has very limited defensive capabilities.
The bottom line is that strong missile defenses render North Korea’s nuclear program far less of a threat to the United States.
The situation of Japan and South Korea is more complicated. Japan is buying 73 SM-3 Block IIA air defense missiles for US$3.3 billion. SM-3 has not been tested against an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). It is useful, or claimed to be, against intermediate-range ballistic missiles, a threat Japan faces from both China and North Korea, but whether it is good enough is still an open question.
South Korea has the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system the US has deployed there. THAAD, along with South Korea’s Patriot system, offers some protection from a North Korean missile attack. South Korea also wants to upgrade its Patriot system, making it more capable for missile defense, and may be interested in the joint Raytheon-Rafael’s Stunner interceptor missile, which Raytheon calls Skyceptor.
South Koreans rightly worry that any attack on South Korea would involve far more than missiles and would seek to destroy military bases and missile defense installations, plus attacks on industrial centers and urban areas.
The US could reinforce relations with its allies by offering strong missile protection as part of new defense agreements, which might also include a similar and strong commitment to Taiwan. That might help change the regional balance of power that is currently shifting away from the US and its friends.
Recognition of the reality of North Korea’s intentions and capabilities, with a significant upgrade of missile defense systems and agreements with friends and allies, and the Trump administration could stymie Kim Jong Un and prove that, in fact, the sky is not falling.