Why the Real North Korea Threat Isn't Its Nuclear Weapons

Founding Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center

Friendly neighbors and wide oceans. That, in a phrase, is America's fallback security plan. It happens to be a very effective security plan, says Michael Desch, although you wouldn't know it by listening to politicians. Their squawking about threats to America are more the result of what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex and America's history of interventionist foreign policy. Case in point: North Korea. The hermit kingdom's nuclear weapons are a defensive strategy, not an offensive one. Kim Jong-un is a rational actor who wants his family to stay in power, not risk the complete erasure of his country. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the institute is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.

  • Transcript


Michael Desch: The United States is remarkably secure. But you wouldn’t sort of get that sense if you listened to our President or the members of Congress who constantly are finding threats out there to America’s security. And I don’t want to be in the position to deny that there are challenges out there, but I’d really strongly urge us to put these challenges in their proper context.

So let’s talk about one of the challenges du jour: The North Korean regime under the odious dictator Kim Jong-un’s frenetic and sustained pursuit of a nuclear capability.

There’s no doubt that the North Korean regime is a terrible regime, inflicting suffering mostly on its own people, and I freely concede that the world would be better off if they didn’t have a nuclear capability.

And the question then is, “How much of a threat does this pose to the United States?” And my answer, contrary to the hyperventilating that you see in a lot of the discussion of this topic, is that it really doesn’t change things very much.

To begin with, the United States is one of the largest nuclear powers in the world. Currently our arsenal consists of about 4,000 nuclear warheads that are deliverable in a wide variety of very reliable packages.

Contrast that with North Korea, which may have 20 to 30 atomic devices that may or may not be deliverable on anything other than short range ballistic missiles.

Now most people would concede that the balance is very much in our favor but say, “Look, this is a crazy regime. I mean, couldn’t this be a case in which a madman has his finger on the nuclear trigger?”

And I don’t want to defend Kim Jong-un’s rationality or his sartorial choices, but I would say he’s learned the lesson that many other dictators have learned from Saddam Hussein and from Muammar Gaddafi, which is: if you don’t want to be invaded by the United States, build whatever rudimentary nuclear arsenal you can.

Now, you can’t eat nuclear weapons, and a residual nuclear arsenal I think is no guarantee that the North Korean regime won’t collapse of its own internal rottenness. In fact I anticipate that that’s what will happen. And that will present its own set of challenges.

But they’re a very different set of challenges than the ones that we’ve been talking about in the general political discourse about the North Korean nuclear threat in our country.

So the question then is what the United States should do about North Korea? The challenge that the United States faces is when the regime goes south—as it invariably will, it won’t be tomorrow, it could be five years, it could be ten years—it’s going to pose to the United States a challenge.

And the challenge involves two elements. First of all the United States and the South Koreans will be tempted, if a civil war starts in the north or even if there’s just a large scale social unrest, to intervene. The South to reunify their country, the United States to try to clean up the nuclear capability.

But the problem is that there’s another great power with a big equity in North Korea, and that’s China.

And the Chinese are not particularly fond of the Kim regime, but they’re sort of stuck in a dysfunctional marriage with them.

They don’t want a reunited Korea under Seoul with nuclear weapons on their border. And so the real problem that we face is how we manage the inevitable endgame of a collapsing North Korea with China.

And here the solution is an explicit set of discussions and agreements with the Chinese about what will happen in this context.

And I think we’d be well advised to start now dialoguing with the Chinese about the future. And I think a unified Korea, but also one without nuclear weapons and nonaligned, without a major U.S. military presence could be the deal that would work for everybody.