The Trump Administration, including Secretary of State Pompeo, is coming under withering attack for continued dialogue with North Korea’s ruthless dictator, Kim Jung Un. Trump is – once again – right. He is right to steadily engage North Korea, because stakes are enormous. Trump’s carrot and stick, mutual respect, high level meetings, incentives for denuclearization, reminders of military power, tightening sanctions – is derided by critics, but spot on. History shows this kind of relentless engagement is not only fruitful, but often essential.
Between 1943 and the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, American presidents met with ruthless Soviet leaders 26 times. Some meetings were memorable, such as Teheran (1943, FDR), Yalta (1943, FDR), Potsdam (1945, Truman), Washington DC (first time, 1959, Eisenhower), Vienna (1961, Kennedy), Moscow (first time, 1972, Nixon), Reykjavik (1986, Reagan), Washington DC (1987, Reagan). Others were more to keep dialogue alive.
After 1949, the Soviets were a nuclear adversary, which is why those meetings mattered. American Presidents have met – at one point or another – with every leader that has tested a nuclear device. The idea that President Trump continuing to seek – by inducement and pressure – a North Korean nuclear rollback – is consistent, whether you like his style or not.
What the media and congressional Democrats miss is reality. Trump’s national security and diplomatic teams see this reality clearly. Nuclear weapons are no joke. Their use is entirely possible, even if catastrophic, in the hands of an irresponsible foreign leader or non-state actor.
That is why – while Washington insiders count how many non-collusion reports dance on the head of a pin – Trump professionals continue to negotiate with North Korea, and the President continues to encourage that country to abandon development of nuclear weapons.
Here is the harsh, often willfully ignored reality: Multiple administrations have soft-shoed or turned a blind eye to North Korea’s missile and nuclear developments. They have been unchecked. The country possesses operational short- and long-range missiles. Whether North Korea’s ICBMs can carry a survivable nuclear warhead is unknown.
North Korea has repeatedly tested nuclear devices, up to 250 kilotons. Some argue the detonations were smaller, but the point is really academic. They have successfully tested nuclear devices. Whether they are miniaturizing is not known. Putting a nuclear warhead on any missile would alter forever the world and trigger irrevocable US action.
Arguably, if North Korea ever places a long-range missile on a pad with what appears a nuclear warhead, the United States and allies will have no choice. We will destroy it. If that occurs, other events will cascade, adversely affecting regional allies and the US. China will get sucked into that aftermath, and any war on the Peninsula will be horrific for North Korea, and region.
Returning to the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea, a brief look at possibilities may be enough to sober congressional and media critics of President Trump’s longshot diplomacy. They may never like Trump, but they should respect his push for a deal, on the right terms.
Specifically, North Korea has tested a 250KT nuclear device and numbers short of that. It has tested short, medium and long-range ballistic missiles, including those which – if tipped in their launch trajectory – could potentially hit part of the United States. Not to directly confront the twin threat, before they miniaturize, would be irresponsible. It could open a horrific new chapter for the human species. The Trump team fully understands, so while ballistic missile defense is vital, so is diplomacy. Here are some sobering numbers.
According to credible sources, an estimated death toll from detonation of a 250KT nuclear device over Tokyo, Japan would produce 37.9 million casualties. A similar detonation over Seoul, South Korea might leave 24.1 million casualties.
For perspective, the highest death estimates from Hiroshima are 140,000, and for Nagasaki 80,000. See the difference? One 250KT North Korean nuclear weapon over Japan could kill 265 times the number killed at Hiroshima, 462 times the number killed at Nagasaki. Worth negotiating, don’t you think?
A similar device detonated over South Korea would kill 171 times the number lost at Hiroshima, 300 times the number who died at Nagasaki. The dire nature of the threat is more real, as other scenarios are explored.
If North Korea miniaturized a 10KT nuclear weapon, placed it on an ICBM of a type they already have, made the warhead survivable, and detonated it over Washington DC, the number of estimated dead would top 1.3 million. A quarter of residents would perish immediately.
Perhaps in perspective, given where North Korea stands on the trajectory of missile and nuclear weapon deployment potential – that is, close but not yet there – President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and others deserve credit for establishing dialogue and keeping it open, offering respect and incentives for giving up nuclear weapons, notes of realism, and pressure to get China, Russia and others to tighten sanctions.
Making change is sometimes hard. Diplomacy comes with bumps, stops and starts. But credit belongs to those who do not give up, who are creative, consistent and committed – to making the world safer. The Trump Administration is trying, pursuing that goal with single-mindedness, good faith and courage – even if there are back steps. Time for more Americans to pause and acknowledge what motivates the initiative, and then more strongly support it.