Kim Jong-un has accomplished something that neither his grandfather nor father pulled off during the last 70 years: bringing an existential threat to the shores of the United States. North Korea’s handful of missiles that are soon to be pointed our way will be seen as posing a greater existential threat than do the far more numerous nuclear-tipped missiles of Russia and China — on the premise that by feigning (?) madness Kim is far more likely to use them. How weird that the really dangerous adversaries are seen as posing a far lesser danger than the far weaker one. Iran is looking at all this as a tutorial.
That fact alone has changed completely the strategic calculus of the Korean peninsula. Almost every decision that the U.S. will now make, as opposed to those of the last seven decades, will hinge on the premise that a nuclear nut can now threaten the lives of millions on the U.S. West Coast. Even in the age of North Korean technological incompetence and American high-tech excellence, a sophisticated society assumes it cannot live with the idea that there is a 1-2 percent chance that a lone North Korean nuclear missile — due to a supposedly insane finger on the button that claims it is indifferent to threats of U.S. massive retaliation — could at any moment actually get through U.S. defenses to reach Pacific Heights or South Central LA.
The result is that inevitably there will be a growing disconnect between South Korean and American strategic concerns, as our own policy will focus on the ramifications not just in terms of the sanctity of Seoul, but of the U.S. mainland. Such a shift in emphasis will be manipulated not just by North Korea but China as well as they insidiously remind South Korea that the U.S. is predicating its Korean strategy now solely in terms of its own self-interests. We should expect in the future lots of trial-balloon diplomacy from China suggesting U.S. troops vacate South Korea or a demilitarization of the peninsula, all predicated on the idea that Kim’s new gambit can be used to gain lots of concessions in the interest of “peace.”
How we came to this juncture is a tale of 30 years of bipartisan failure, or, to paraphrase Machiavelli, it is easier to cure a disease in its adolescence when its symptoms are harder to detect, but nearly impossible once there is no doubt about it pernicious presence.