With America in the midst of two wars today, Lincoln’s advice may yet again offer a sound policy for dealing with North Korea.
On January 17, The New York Times reported that “the North Korean military declared an ‘all-out confrontational posture’ against the South and threatened a naval clash.” On the same day, North Korea declared that it would remain a “nuclear weapons state,” having “weaponized” enough plutonium for at least four bombs.
Yet, as mighty as North Korea’s military seems, the “Hermit Kingdom” is fragile and weak in reality. Despite her saber-rattling, a cold look at the facts suggests that North Korea lacks the power to win any conflict with South Korea, let alone the United States.
Consider the nuclear game. Dictator Kim Jong Il is reportedly in ill health and probably wants nothing more than to peacefully pass from this difficult life. Unlike Osama bin Laden or even Saddam Hussein, Kim does not have messianic visions of martyrdom. He is an atheistic communist who has three sons and wants his descendants to rule the Hermit Kingdom. For that reason, he is unlikely to behave destructively.
Although North Korea may have half a dozen nukes, the President of the United States has access to ten thousand such weapons. North Korea’s leaders understand that if they ever sell a nuclear weapon to terrorists or directly launch a missile at South Korea or the United States itself, America could potentially retaliate and win by launching just six missiles—one at Pyongyang, and five at the major commercial-industrial cities of Kaesong, Wonsan, Hamhung, Chongjin, and Sinuiju. The loss of these six cities would wipe out the communist leadership, destroy the country’s military-industrial base, and leave North Korea in a nuclear checkmate.
Analyst Dinesh D’Souza argues that although North Korea’s regime is evil and oppressive, it is fundamentally a regime of the Cold War variety—i.e., one that understands the logic of deterrence and can be deterred through traditional means. During the Cold War, America and its allies were remarkably successful in deterring nuclear threats from communist regimes in China and Russia because these regimes preferred survival to martyrdom. North Korea, like its former communist cousins, is evil but rational.
When considering all possible threats, it becomes clear that North Korea lacks the power to win a conventional war in addition to any nuclear confrontation. North Korea’s GDP fluctuates around $40 billion, with a $6 billion military budget. In contrast, the South has a trillion-dollar economy and a $26 billion military budget. Although North Korea has a million-man army on paper, it is poorly armed and lacks the full panoply of modern weaponry that the South has. With less than half the population of the South, North Korea does not have the population or economic resources to fight an expensive conflict. Moreover, this entire analysis assumes that the United States will behave conservatively and refrain from sending the U.S. Pacific Fleet to wreck havoc on North Korea’s vulnerable coastlines. With the knowledge that these scenarios are possible, North Korea is unlikely to seek a conventional war and must instead opt for peace. It might insist on keeping its nuclear deterrent, but it will seek formal security guarantees, diplomatic relations, and the benefits of international trade.
Former president Calvin Coolidge once said that if one sees ten problems coming up, sometimes the best thing is to do nothing, because nine of them will prove to be false alarms. In looking at North Korea, it is likely that the current situation, although unpleasant, is not something that will threaten U.S. interests in a catastrophic way.