COMMENTARY: Knowing the unknowable about North Korea

Sooner or later, perhaps sooner than we think, perhaps nearly right away, North Korea will be able to hit the continental United States with a nuclear missile. That’s scary. Very scary. Very, very scary because unlike previous or other nuclear threats or other nuclear nations, we don’t know how Kim Jong Un thinks.

Back during the Cold War, there used to be a debate between “launch on warning” or “launch on attack.” People had opinions about these options, never resolved, but is a good question for today. Because, unlike Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel or our NATO allies, we do not know much about how things work in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea.

Do we think Kim Jong Un in North Korea will have the same reservations about nuking Japan, South Korea or the United States as, say, Vladimir Putin? We simply don’t know.

Reid K. Beveridge

In the 64 years since the end of the Korean War in 1953, South Koreans have become remarkably bemused about the threat from the north. This despite the fact that North Korea has an estimated 10,000 artillery pieces lined up along the Demilitarized Zone. Seoul, a city of more 10 million, is within artillery range.

This is one reason why the options before President Trump, as they have been for several generations now, are so awful. One might think an peremptory strike to destroy North Korea’s missiles and its nuclear facilities would be a good idea, except that it would begin another Korean War by unleashing all that artillery on Seoul and its suburbs. Millions would die.

Although many South Koreans are ambivalent about all this, it is striking to American military who suddenly find themselves stationed in South Korea. One quickly learns that if the war begins, all spouses, children, families and yourself will die, probably within a few minutes. The main U.S. headquarters at Yongson in central Seoul is “ground zero.”

Over the years, the South Korean government has evolved from a military dictatorship (the president always was a four-star general) to a decent democracy. But nothing changes in the north, other than for the worse. Since the late 1940s, there have been three leaders in the north, called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They are father, son and grandson: Kim il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un.

The old man, who ruled until his unexpected death in 1994, was Moscow-trained and a fairly rational, though brutal, dictator. His son was a mystery, never spoke in public and the husband of several wives. Now we have the grandson, referred to one wit as the “fat kid.” He became leader at age 26. He’s now 33, more or less.

The youngest Kim (Kim is a very common surname in Korea) has had his uncle executed and recently arranged the assassination of his half-brother. Nice guy. The Kims decided a long time ago that regime security was THE most important thing. The answer? Obtain nuclear weapons and threaten to use them on Japan or the United States.

So the question for the Trump administration is what to do about this? And like a lot of decisions facing any presidents of the United States, there are only bad options.

One thing any American president could do is attack both the missile sites and the nuclear production sites. But you do that and the war begins. Millions of Koreans and some Americans die within minutes.

The second obvious way to rein in North Korea is to get China to do it. So far, China hasn’t. China’s interest historically has been a stable North Korea — a North Korea that doesn’t do anything stupid. China definitely does not want the North Korean regime to collapse or be defeated in a way that unifies the two Koreas under South Korean governance.

So the final question, for which there is no answer, is whether the young Kim is what is called a “rational actor?” This is a term academics use to characterize a leader’s decision-making process. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, we had no doubt that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was rational. Same for all his successors. This made the Cold War dangerous, but fairly predictable. We didn’t really expect the Soviets to attack us, and they didn’t.

But does this same calculus hold for young Kim? Don’t know. And that’s dangerous. The only thing that change in Korea is change for the worse.

Reid K. Beveridge is a retired Army and Delaware National Guard brigadier general with extensive service in South Korea. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

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