North Korea’s nuclear weapons probably aren’t going anywhere.
The test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday is the latest disconcerting development in a decades-long slide toward a nuclear-armed North Korea capable of striking the U.S. homeland and its allies. As past administrations repeatedly failed to make the hard choices, the Trump administration now faces an uphill, if not impossible, battle as it pursues a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
The U.S. and its partners are no longer preventing North Korea from developing nuclear bombs and long-range missiles; rather, they are attempting to take nuclear weapons away from the regime, a far more daunting task. The cost of conflict at this point would be, in the words of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” U.S. Army General Mark Milley described any potential conflict on the Korean peninsula Thursday as “highly deadly, horrific.”
The U.S. had one chance to stop North Korea in its tracks a little over two decades ago. It would have been bloody, but significantly less devastating than a conflict would be now.
North Korea attempted to deceive the global community in 1994, kicked out inspectors, and likely had enough nuclear material for two nuclear weapons. “I was determined to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal, even at the risk of war,” former President Bill Clinton wrote in his memoirs, revealing that the U.S. was seriously considering surgical strikes on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Clinton held back because he received “a sobering estimate of the staggering losses both sides would suffer if war broke out.”
Instead, he opted for diplomacy, which resulted in the Agreed Upon Framework. North Korea betrayed the pact and covertly developed nuclear weapons while the U.S. provided billions of dollars, potentially subsidizing the program and prolonging the life of the regime.
Before North Korea had nuclear weapons and an arsenal of increasingly reliable missiles, the estimated casualty count for a war with North Korea was in the hundreds of thousands, but that conflict would at least have been definitive and non-nuclear. U.S. military officials were confident at the time that North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor could be taken out without spreading radiation.
Now the death toll would be significantly higher, and it will continue to rise as North Korea advances its weapons programs. North Korean missiles are flying farther, bringing new targets in range, and the explosive yield has grown with each nuclear test since 2006. The North is processing more nuclear material, developing new launch systems, and readying itself for what could be a catastrophic conflict.
A bloody sacrifice in ’94 might have been worth it to avoid the situation we now face.
North Korea holds a vast stockpile of chemical weapons as well, and has taken every step to ensure any conflict will exact as much blood as possible. The U.S.’s response, meanwhile, has been limited to sanctions on a regime with little regard for the well-being of its own people.
Each successive nuclear and missile test by the North Korean regime highlights the enduring failure of this approach — and pushes the death toll in a potential conflict higher. If U.S. policymakers could not stomach the death toll in 1994, they are likely less inclined to do so today.
A bloody sacrifice in ’94 might have been worth it to avoid the situation we now face — one in which a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula is unlikely to be seen in our lifetimes.
— Saagar Enjeti is the Pentagon and foreign-affairs correspondent for the Daily Caller News Foundation in Washington, D.C.