In the next four years, North Korea is poised to cross a dangerous threshold by finally developing the capability to hit the continental United States with a nuclear missile. That ability would present a direct threat to the United States and could punch a hole in the U.S. nuclear umbrella in Asia: Japan and South Korea, doubtful that Washington would risk U.S. cities to defend Tokyo or Seoul, might feel they had no choice but to get their own nuclear bombs. U.S. President Donald Trump, while still president-elect, drew a redline at Pyongyang’s feet, tweeting, “It won’t happen!” But the real question is how to stop it.
Hawks argue that Washington should act now by imposing harsh new economic sanctions or undertaking preemptive military strikes. But neither option would end well. Slapping Pyongyang with still more sanctions would only encourage it to sprint toward the completion of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. And military action could lead to the destruction of Seoul (which sits within range of North Korean artillery) and expose U.S. forces in Guam, Japan, and South Korea to devastating retaliation, potentially triggering a catastrophic war in one of the world’s most populous and prosperous regions.
If the United States really hopes to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula, it should stop looking for ways to stifle North Korea’s economy and undermine Kim Jong Un’s regime and start finding ways to make Pyongyang feel more secure. This might sound counterintuitive, given North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and human rights record. But consider this: North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction. And North Korea will consider surrendering its nuclear deterrent only once it feels secure and prosperous and is economically integrated into Northeast Asia. What’s more, the world can best help most North Koreans by relieving their deprivation and bringing down the negotiate a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program in return for a U.S. security guarantee, since that is the only measure that could enable Kim to start concentrating on economic development and the belated transformation of North Korea.
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