Donald Trump’s 3AM phone call has arrived, in the form of a North Korean nuclear test that the regime claims proves it has a hydrogen bomb. Here’s hoping he ignores the call.
Even if Pyongyang’s claims are true, the political reality will be much more dull than the frantic overreaction to it. There is very little that the United States can do to North Korea if we want to avert a catastrophic bloodbath in South Korea and Japan. Mark Bowden in The Atlantic recently gave a tremendous overview of our limited options in dealing with the intransigent dictatorship: long story short, waiting them out is literally our best option.
A military assault on North Korea would almost certainly fail to disable even its nuclear arsenal much less its conventional military threat, which would mean tens or even hundreds of thousands dead in Seoul, Tokyo and beyond. An assassination of the leadership would not only be a grievous violation of international law, it would also be unlikely to succeed–and even if it did succeed, the aftermath might be worse than the status quo.
The fact that North Korea either can today or will soon be able to reach the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile doesn’t alter the game in a significant way. Kim Jong Un can already destroy Seoul and Tokyo today, far more easily than he could ever destroy Los Angeles tomorrow. America and the world can little better tolerate the former than it can the latter. Which means that North Korea already has the threat of mutually assured destruction in its grasp. A hydrogen bomb pointed at the United States does little to alter that equation.
In this case, let’s hope that Trump stays calm and listens to more rational voices rather than the hotheads who will make terrible mistakes in an effort to sound tough.