Last week, we saw a dramatic escalation in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. The chance of military conflict seems to increase with every exchange of messages. First, the North Korean dictator, Kim Jung- un, taunted the U.S. with threats of more missile launches and underground bomb tests.
President Trump responded by warning that any future threats would be met with “fire and fury,” and Kim responded by threatening to launch missiles at Guam. Trump then adjusted his rhetoric to indicate that an actual attack by North Korea would trigger the promised massive U.S. response. “We’re locked and loaded,” Trump warned, should Kim attack its neighbors or U.S. territory.
So far in this war of words, both sides have left room to back away from the edge of an all-out conflict. Unless Kim is a suicidal maniac, he must know that a full-scale war with the U.S. would end in the destruction of his country, as Defense Secretary James Mattis has warned. Just one of our nuclear submarines carries enough firepower to destroy North Korea several times over. Kim would be well advised to accept the offer of diplomatic negotiations made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson instead of continued confrontation with Washington.
For his part, Trump must weigh the enormous potential cost of a major war on the Korean peninsula. Even if the U.S. launched a massive attack on the North, Kim would likely have enough firepower to rain down devastation on 25 million South Koreans as well as 20,000 U.S. military personnel and up to 200,000 Americans living and working there. Casualties on both sides would be enormous. A refugee crisis of huge proportions would inevitably follow.
The U.S. would be left with a gargantuan bill for waging the war and the inevitable burden of dealing with its aftermath. Think hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars. The drain on the U.S. Treasury would leave significantly less room for much-needed tax reform and infrastructure rebuilding in the U.S. to stimulate our own economy.
If Trump is serious about his “America First” promise, he should take a page from other presidents who have dealt with foreign crises. While he has an understandable disdain for past administrations’ diplomatic and military failures — Bush in Iraq, Obama in Syria and Iran — he might want to look back at another New Yorker who held his job. Teddy Roosevelt was no slouch when it came to projecting American power overseas to defend American interests. He believed in walking softly but carrying a big stick. His foreign adversaries gave him a wide berth, and he ended up with his visage on Mount Rushmore and a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end to a war in Asia between Russia and Japan.
In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy, who is also generally recognized as no presidential pushover, used his considerable diplomatic and military abilities to end a dangerous nuclear standoff with Russia. He skillfully blended the right mix of military might and negotiation to save the world from a devastating World War III.
There are many tools left to the U.S. in negotiating the North Korean crisis. Even after the billion dollars in financial sanctions the U.N. unanimously imposed on North Korea, there are still more painful penalties available, including tightening the international banking system to choke off transactions involving North Korean interests.
The key player in all of this is China, which keeps North Korea afloat. It can and should be hit with its own set of sanctions unless it backs off its financial support for Kim’s government. We have to let the Chinese know we’re serious, taking away from them what matters most, levying so-called secondary sanctions on Chinese companies and banks handling hard currency for North Korea, and by denying China what it values most — access to the U.S. markets.
While China might be unable to tell North Korea what to do, it can cut it off. Let it fall. And that is what China must do. Without oil or electricity from China, many experts believe, North Korea could collapse in just a few months.
Let that happen. Let it fall. China would be on the right side of history. And if Kim were truly crazy enough to launch some kind of last-ditch attack in response, the U.S. would be fully justified in putting a final nail in the coffin of North Korean dictatorship.
During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia avoided war because their nuclear stockpiles guaranteed mutually assured destruction, or MAD. Today, North Korea must realize that given the U.S.’s enormous nuclear advantage, it must step back from threatening war, because if war were to come, there would be only singularly assured destruction, and that would be SAD for the people of North Korea, and the entire world.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.