Contrary to what John McCain and others in Washington are saying, North Korea’s nuclear program is not a “Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” Nor does tough talk from President Trump mean he’s about to launch preemptive strikes against Kim Jong-un. Where would be the profit in that? North Korea is not a cripple like Syria: The U.S. risked no obvious retaliation from blowing up one of Assad’s airfields. Pyongyang, on the other hand, has a wealth of targets to strike if the U.S. acts rashly: Seoul can be shelled from across the DMZ; our bases in South Korea and Japan are as much hostages as they are military assets. The trouble with empire, as always, is defending its perimeter.
If Trump and Kim have something in common, it’s not that either is crazy enough to risk his own survival, political or otherwise. They both have a flair for the dramatic and aren’t averse to backing up words with a display of force. But they are also shrewd calculators eager for symbolic victories, and they know that war between the U.S. and North Korea would be a losing proposition, to say the least.
Brinkmanship, on the other hand, is nothing but upside. It’s an opportunity for Kim to keep stronger powers off balance while extorting more aid from abroad. For Trump, it means he gets to appear presidential and firm, striking a contrast to the vacillation and weakness of Barack Obama. Not only do the GOP’s Beltway hawks love that pose, but not a few mainstream media types do as well. So Pyongyang and Washington both benefit from tensions—as long as the showdown remains just a show.
Kim’s missile program will be able to target the continental U.S. within a few years, unless he agrees to slow down. (That, of course, will come at a steeply negotiated price.) There is no plausible scenario, however, in which North Korea can launch nuclear missiles against us without incurring immediate, apocalyptic retaliation. Russia and China have missiles pointed our way as well, but Americans lose little sleep at night worrying about them, though their arsenals pose threats many orders of magnitude greater than anything that will ever come from North Korea. Then again, those great powers are rational. Isn’t Kim insane?
Even where fanatical, absolutist, and quite chaotic regimes are concerned, nuclear deterrence works. The United States proved this during the Cold War, when she never had to doubt her arsenal’s efficacy even as Mao Tse-tung plunged a nuclearized China into the madness of the Cultural Revolution. The list of truly irrational and obviously suicidal regimes in history is virtually blank—the quality of mind it takes to run a state, the mix of grandiosity and opportunism that characterizes not only a ruler but his necessary lieutenants, is not conducive to self-negation of the atomic kind.
The Kim dynasty in particular has ruled North Korea for three generations now. And while it remains a Stalinist state, it is most Stalinist not in its communist ideology (persistent though it is) but in its cult of the leader. North Korea lives for the sake of Kim, not the other way around.
There are other nightmare scenarios beyond a ballistic-missile attack: A nuclear device, a “suitcase nuke,” could be smuggled into our country. But Kim puts his resources into missiles for a reason: perpetual nuclear blackmail. Seoul and Tokyo, Washington and Beijing, will show him respect and shower him with gifts, sooner or later, if only he keeps up the mischief. This is exasperating for Washington, and Trump is now trying to show he’s an even tougher, wilder negotiator than Kim. In the end, though, Trump can be satisfied with appearances that are pleasing to the American public. Kim will only be satisfied by real gains. That gives him an edge.
But will Kim exhaust China’s patience? He hasn’t so far: An unpredictable North Korea helps reinforce the idea that China is a responsible power and not the greatest risk to the region’s security. In this alone, perhaps, there’s a parallel to the Cuban Missile Crisis: North Korea, like Cuba, is only a footnote to a great-power struggle.