Soften the Tone and Harden Our Defenses

The North Korean nuclear crisis can be defused peacefully and to America’s advantage if its elements are perceived with strategic clarity, and if U.S. leaders recognize that diplomacy depends less upon signals than upon maneuver.
Kim Jong Un is not entirely irrational. The purpose of his nuclear program is not to court annihilation but to deter American military options on the Korean Peninsula and change the correlation of forces in his favor. North Korea created chemical and biological arsenals that effectively neutralized American tactical nuclear weapons and led to their withdrawal. What we see now is an amplification of that strategy, with the object of eventually driving American forces from Korea.
It is extremely unlikely that Mr. Kim would strike, if at all, before his nuclear forces have matured in numbers and reliability. Relatively few of his delivery systems or miniaturized warheads have been extensively tested. Nor have they been proven to work together. And the U.S. and Japan have multiple layers of midcourse and terminal-phase missile defenses.
Thus, time remains to set in motion options on the escalation ladder between the fatal extremes of either doing nothing or taking precipitous military action. The problem is that these opportunities have not been exploited, the focus having been too much on Pyongyang rather than on Beijing, which can both completely shut down the North Korean economy and credibly threaten military intervention.
To the extent that China is shifting, it is because it fears a war on its border, understands what such a war would do to its own and the world’s economy, fears even more that Japan and South Korea might develop nuclear deterrents, and sees that its nuclear calculus has been disrupted by the Thaad radar’s ability to enhance American missile defense via forwarding data on Chinese missile launches in boost phase.
But this is not enough. As the late U.S. ambassador to China James Lilley said: “You won’t get anything from them unless you squeeze them.” In view of America’s disappearing red lines, repeated nuclear capitulations to North Korea and Iran, the largely substanceless “pivot” to Asia, and our passivity in the South China Sea, China will wait to see if we fold.
To date, the Trump administration has failed to apply the kind of intermediate measures on the escalation ladder that are outlined below. It needs to understand that China is watching and waiting, and that absent either overwhelming military superiority or a vast store of credibility — neither of which we now possess — a diplomacy primarily of signals will not produce results. In addition, the Trump administration may think that Pyongyang is too important for Beijing to “abandon.” True, North Korea serves as a “fleet in being” for China, tying down U.S. forces and ready to supply another front to divide them in case of war elsewhere, but now conditions are sufficiently dangerous and different that China can be stimulated to reassess.
That is, if the U.S. takes previously neglected measures to respond to China’s military rise, protect our Asian allies, and guard international waters from maritime irredentism.
The president can switch from tough-guy talk to going before a joint session of Congress to ask for an emergency increase in funding to correct the longstanding degradation of American military power. He can say that the can has been kicked down the road far too long, and the buck stops with him. If Congress responds enthusiastically, as it should, China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran will see that the giant has awakened, and the funding will make possible what follows:
— Given the immense distances across the Pacific, American conventional military leverage and deterrence vis-a-vis China depend entirely upon bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam. These bases are insufficiently hardened against attack by China’s many intermediate-range ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, and bombers. Munitions bunkers and aircraft are ranged in tight rows rather than scattered in deep, underground, highly fortified shelters. Given the wingspans and tail heights of B-52s and C-17s, these would be immensely expensive, but war is much more so in every respect.
— Now that the U.S. may soon be threatened by a rogue regime’s ICBMs, a vigorous acceleration of every aspect of ballistic-missile defense is warranted. This will protect against Iran and North Korea, promote uncertainty and hesitation in mature powers’ calculation of their nuclear thresholds, and reduce the chances of a first strike against the U.S. by protecting its retaliatory capacities.
— The F-22 — slated for 750 copies but reduced to 187; much faster than the F-35, with almost twice the range and more than twice the armament — is essential in the vast expanses of the Western Pacific. But it was taken out of production not that long ago when the Obama administration believed that security situations such as we now face were inconceivable. Restoring production lines, at a cost of one-tenth the AIG bailout, would exert priceless influence upon China.
— Nothing would rivet China’s attention more than if the U.S. formally announced that absent the abolition of North Korea’s nuclear capacity it would look with favor upon and assist with a Japanese and/or South Korean nuclear deterrent, and then established a commission for this purpose. So as to de-link North Korea from the South China Sea, the U.S. should at this point make clear to China that it is weighing supply of coastal anti-shipping missiles to the Philippines and Vietnam. Establishing such a gauntlet to preserve sovereign rights and freedom of navigation is long overdue.
These maneuvers well short of war can rebalance power, instill caution, and stabilize the increasingly volatile Western Pacific, as well as contribute to stability elsewhere. A cost-benefit analysis objectively applied will so depress the value to China of a rogue North Korea that China should find common ground with us in coordinating action and point of view. The choice need not be between capitulation and war, silence and bluster. But only if the United States decides upon carrying a bigger stick and speaking more softly.

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2017.

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Mark Helprin