Loose Cannon on Deck

By Todd Buchanan


On October 1, 2017, one day after his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said he was attempting to start a dialogue with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Trump called the effort a waste of time. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what needs to be done,” Trump said.

Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, responded in support of Tillerson’s efforts. “I think Tillerson understands that every intelligence agency we have says there’s no amount of economic pressure you can put on North Korea to get them to stop this program because they view it as their survival,” Corker said.

Nuclear weapons are chiefly defensive in application, especially for a nominal nuclear power which cannot credibly threaten a successful first strike against another nuclear power better endowed. As we noted in “Violations of the Public Trust” below, it is not necessary that a regime be a champion of freedom and democracy in order to be deterred from initiating nuclear war. All that is necessary for any regime to be deterred is the prospect of its power and privileges being destroyed in retaliation for first use.

Nuclear weapons seem to impose a logic of their own, no matter what the character of the leadership of any country possessing them.

Even though the United States would retain overwhelming superiority of military forces, North Korea can credibly threaten a devastating attack on South Korea in retaliation for first-use by the United States. But the prospect of a single nuclear weapon and its delivery system surviving a first strike by the United States, and North Korea successfully delivering it to anywhere in the United States, would be an added deterrent against a U.S. attack.

In between the extravagant rhetoric which Kim Jong-un has traded with Donald Trump, North Korea has made clear that the only nations that need fear its nuclear capability are any that would join in a U.S. attack. This is nuclear deterrence, clear and simple. North Korea might be more emboldened with a survivable nuclear capability, but there is no reason to believe it would contemplate an unprovoked attack with its nuclear weapons. As much as we would like to avoid an emboldened North Korea in any form, the regime considers nuclear weapons to be critical to its survival, as Senator Corker said, and is determined to keep them.

Can Donald Trump accept this reality? In time he would have to, but what might he do in the meantime?

This we cannot say. But we can say that he has needlessly aggravated this situation and seems to enjoy doing so. In addition to his general disregard for tact and other virtues of good governance, Donald Trump is reckless with the national security. With the Mueller investigation steadily closing in on him, will Trump be inclined to “bring it on” with North Korea in a desperate attempt to shield himself from Congressional action to remove him from office?

I would not put it past him.

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