Kuhner's Corner: North Korea is Trump’s Cuban Missile Crisis
Donald Trump is facing the greatest foreign policy crisis of his young presidency. The Korean Peninsula is slowly drifting toward war—maybe even nuclear war.
North Korea’s Stalinist dictator, Kim Jong-Un, is rattling his sabre at the United States (and the world). He vows to rain “nuclear thunderbolts” upon Seoul, the capital of South Korea, as well as U.S. military bases stationed in that Asian country. In short, Kim has promised that, should the United States launch a preemptive military strike on North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities, Pyongyang will unleash a “nuclear war” upon U.S. forces, South Korea and Japan. The result would be millions of people slaughtered and entire cities reduced to ashes.
Kim has made reckless threats in the past. The difference this time, however, is that he appears to mean it. North Korea’s hermit kingdom is a failed totalitarian state. It is an economic basket case; millions of its citizens are starving to death while its murderous communist leadership, especially, the hedonistic and tubby Kim, live in luxury. It has little popular support. The country is replete with slave labor camps.
Yet, the only thing propping up Kim’s regime is its WMD program. Pyongyang has been relentlessly testing nuclear bombs. More importantly, Kim is determined to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead. His goal is not just to intimidate and menace his neighbors, but to eventually be able to target the United States itself—Hawaii and the continental West Coast. Should North Korea become a genuine nuclear power then Kim believes he can blackmail America and also preserve his regime from any future attack. He desperately wants to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. This is why Kim has recently accelerated the development of his missile program.
Trump believes North Korea will have the capacity to launch a nuclear missile at California by 2020. He has said repeatedly that the United States—and the world—cannot “live with Kim holding a gun to our head.” He is determined to defang the North Korean tyrant.
There is, however, only one problem: Kim cannot—and will not—stand down. The reason is obvious: Take away his WMD program and Kim’s regime will crumble. It is the only leverage he has over his neighbors—including Red China, North Korea’s patron—and his own oppressed people. Kim’s iron-fisted rule is based on fear and the impression of omnipotence. If he should back down in his standoff with Trump, ordinary North Koreans will sense weakness and the loss of prestige. Once that happens, Kim’s days are numbered. Hence, he may prefer even a suicidal war than losing public face to Trump. Time will tell.
Trump is now engaged in a high stakes gamble. He inherited a mess from previous administrations. For over two decades, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama kicked the North Korean can down the road, constantly postponing decisive action in favor of appeasement. The result is a geopolitical nightmare: A paranoid regime that has been coddled by the West for years is now threatening thermo-nuclear war unless it is allowed to continue to thumb its nose at the world with impunity.
Trump is confronting his own version of the Cuban Missile Crisis—the last time we came to the brink of a nuclear confrontation. The conventional wisdom is that Beijing is the key to bringing Pyongyang to heel. China supplies North Korea with much of its oil, energy and financial assistance. Washington hopes the Chinese will put the economic screws into Kim’s regime, thereby forcing a de-nuclearized North Korea. This is wishful thinking masquerading as grand strategy.
For decades, Beijing has been playing us for fools. It has no interest—none—in reining in Kim’s rogue state. The Chinese have successfully used North Korea as a proxy to extract economic concessions from the United States in exchange for future promises of rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear program. China gets privileged access to America’s vast market, while North Korea continues to develop more nukes. Trump needs to realize—like he did as a candidate—that Beijing is not an ally. It is our enemy. A good steak dinner and delicious chocolate cake will not change Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It’s time to put America First. Trump should immediately pull out the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in South Korea. Our troops are simply a trip wire; they are essentially hostages in the event of a North Korean assault. If Kim should unleash a devastating military offensive, U.S. forces will be the first to be slaughtered. They are sitting ducks not just for North Korean artillery, but any possible chemical or nuclear weapons attack.
Trump would be wise to then install nuclear missiles in South Korea (and Japan). This would send Pyongyang a clear message: any missile strike on Hawaii, Guam or the West Coast will lead to North Korea being incinerated in a matter of minutes. Just like Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) kept the peace in Europe throughout the Cold War, deploying nuclear forces along the DMZ will act as a strategic deterrent against North Korean adventurism. A nuclearized South Korea and Japan will help to contain Pyongyang—as well as Communist China.
A war in East Asia would be catastrophic for everyone. The region needs to pull back from the brink. But Kim Jong-Un must be taught a lesson: His constant threats to invade and annihilate his neighbors will no longer be tolerated. His puerile bluster comes at a high price. Maybe if Kim sees scores of nuclear warheads staring at him across from the DMZ he will realize the era of appeasement is over. Trump is not Obama; he is not a man to be toyed with. North Korea’s tin-pot dictator is learning this the hard way.
-Jeffrey T. Kuhner is host of “The Kuhner Report” on WRKO AM-680.