Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Jonathan Cristol: North Korea may now be able to launch ICBMs capable of hitting US cities
But the greater danger in this development is President Trump's reaction, writes Cristol
Last Friday, North Korea conducted a successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that appears capable of reaching American cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago. This new development is a cause for concern, but not panic or rash aggressive action.
The greater danger faced by both the US and the region is the reaction of President Donald Trump to this development.
The existence of a nuclear power with the capability of striking the United States is an inherent threat, but it is one that the US has lived with for decades. In 1986, there were over 40,000 Soviet nuclear warheads pointed at the US. Today, there are over 1,700 Russian warheads capable of killing tens of millions of Americans in under 20 minutes.
And yet, somehow, most Americans are able to sleep at night – and are more afraid of Iran than Russia.
The US military has acted appropriately and prudently since this recent test. It has conducted another successful test of THAAD, and held bomber runs over the Korean Peninsula with the South Koreans.
Trump’s personal response has been to tweet – angrily: “China could easily solve this problem.” This, despite the President previously tweeting that, “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried.”
Apparently, the buck stops in Beijing, which, incidentally has its own nuclear armed missiles that are capable of destroying American cities.
Trump seems to think that China can stop North Korea and that it should do so simply because he wants it to. But China and the US have divergent regional interests. China needs to make sure that North Korea does not provoke a major increase in the US presence in the region. But it also fears a collapse of the Kim government, which would result in a regional refugee crisis and potentially bring US forces up to the Chinese border.
China certainly could do more, but the US (and each of us) should know from experience that getting friends – let alone frenemies – to do what you want them to do is hard.
Much of the hyperbolic reaction to the North Korean missile tests is rooted in lack of understanding of how missile tests progress.
States do not continually test weapons systems and then, as soon as they are successful, use them against enemy targets. Pyongyang’s missile testing program will no more end with a nuclear strike on Washington than did its nuclear program end with a bomb dropped on Seoul.
The only time in history that that has happened is the bombing of Hiroshima, which came in the context of an all-out war between the US and Japan.
Kim Jong Un is a rational actor who wants to survive. The ability to strike the continental US ensures that survival; actually striking the United States ensures his destruction.
It is Trump’s response to these incremental developments that presents the real risk.
He could determine that US involvement in the region is not worth the risk to the US mainland and withdraw the US from our regional defense treaties and US forces from the region.
Indeed, this may be the real goal of Kim Jong Un and South Korea may already be nervous about this possibility. Seoul recently requested that the US allow it to double the explosive yield of its own missiles, and McClatchy reported that South Korea may seek to develop its own nuclear deterrent, though President Moon Jae-in currently opposes a nuclear program.
Another possibility is that Trump decides to mount a preventive strike against North Korea.
There was a time when a preventive strike on North Korea was an option worthy of serious debate, but that time passed years ago. An attack on North Korea now would both present an unacceptable risk to South Korea and Japan, and would involve the US in a war that would make Iraq and Afghanistan look like minor fender benders.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula is complicated, and the stakes are high. It can’t be solved by the shared consumption of a piece of chocolate cake, no matter how beautiful it might be.