With North Korea’s successful intercontinental missile test this month, Americans again woke up to breathless alarm over possible military strikes and the specter of a North Korean nuclear attack - a virtual repeat of the hype in April when it looked as if a sixth North Korean nuclear test was imminent.
Why are we so afraid of North Korea?
The media and policymakers like to remind us that North Korea produces one bomb’s worth of nuclear material every eight weeks. By most accounts, if nothing changes, the regime will build a nuclear arsenal able to hit the U.S. mainland in the mid-2020s.
It’s also perfectly true that, with a bad decision or two, the U.S. could stumble into a devastating conflict on the peninsula that would cost millions of lives, put U.S. troops in harm’s way and might even spark a nuclear exchange.
That being said, we must put the situation into proper perspective. What has been lost amid the incessant punditry, news coverage and irresponsible headlines suggesting that North Korea can already hit California, is that deterrence on the Korean peninsula is alive and well. The balance of power, moreover, strongly favors the U.S. - not North Korea.
The U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world. Our military is second to none, outspending the next eight countries combined. Our fighting men and women are the best-trained, most technically advanced force in history. We have thousands of nuclear weapons and many more precision-guided conventional bombs. Our warplanes, ships, drones and cyber capabilities are the envy of all. Most importantly, the American experiment - one committed to democratic values and the rule of law - has allowed us to become the world’s sole superpower.
In contrast, we have North Korea, a totalitarian state that consistently fails to meet the basic needs of its 23 million people. The United Nations World Food Program says 70 percent of the North’s citizens did not have enough food to eat in 2016. An estimated 25 percent of the North’s children are physically stunted. The country ranks 213 out of 230 countries in GDP per capita. The North does have a 1.2-million-man military; but an International Institute of Security Studies report found that the North’s conventional forces rely on “increasingly obsolete equipment, with little evidence of widespread modernization.” In other words, their equipment is old.
Who should be afraid of whom?
For all its idiosyncratic behavior, outlandish threats and actions, and gruesome human rights record, the North Korean government is not suicidal. It knows that, in a large-scale confrontation with South Korea and the U.S., the North Korean leadership and the country itself would cease to exist.
The U.S. must therefore maintain its policy of the strongest deterrence. At the same time, however, assuming the U.S. actually wants to solve this problem rather than simply contain it, we must offer more material “carrots” to the North - meaningful security assurances, a semblance of political legitimacy and access to the international economic system.
This more flexible approach would, in turn, assuage Chinese concerns about regime collapse in North Korea. Indeed, once convinced the U.S. had a political solution in mind, China might be more willing to wield much harsher “sticks” - truly crushing sanctions on food and energy, particularly oil and coal.
U.S. action cannot be driven by outdated policies, stereotypes and presidential tweets when overreaction in a high-stakes standoff could lead to catastrophic miscalculation. Above all, the U.S. must lead, and do so with confidence, not fear.
As former Secretary of Defense William Perry has said, “We must take North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.” While this is often interpreted to mean we shouldn’t expect the country to comply with international standards (it won’t), it also means that we can’t view North Korea as a super-villain.
North Korea is a desperately poor country led by a desperately misguided regime. The threat North Korea poses is serious, but not an imminent one to the U.S. homeland. So let’s not make things worse by scaring ourselves and adding to the risk of another Korean War.
Philip W. Yun is executive director of Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco security and peace foundation. He previously served as a senior advisor to two U.S. coordinators for North Korea at the Department of State.