Americans ignorant of mounting nuclear threat

A country with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, increasingly ready to use them, last week abruptly broke off negotiations with the U.S.

Nobody noticed.

Possible impeachment of the president has nudged other stories from the top spot in the news.  Meanwhile, North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and American inability to prevent it got the silent treatment.

Americans are unconcerned and mostly uninformed about the North Korean nuclear threat.  North Korea is the only nuclear-armed country that openly menaces the U.S.  It seems much more ready to aim missiles at the U.S. and rattle its saber than American rivals China or Russia.

Widespread ignorance of the serious threat from North Korea may lead to the U.S. being unprepared.

The small Asian country is an outlaw with which the U.S. has tried for years to negotiate a disarmament deal.  It has offered them food for their starving people, economic development help and increased trade opportunities.  President Clinton came close to a decent accord, but the North Koreans promptly cheated.

President Trump, proud of his deal-making ability, apparently believes that he can achieve North Korean denuclearization thanks to the strength of his personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, the latest in the family dynasty that runs the country.

In three face-to-face meetings, Trump has given Kim, previously shunned by all countries, a world stage.  He also canceled a U.S.-South Korea military exercise as a diplomatic lure for Kim.  Trump says he “fell in love” with Kim, flattery that he hopes will soften the North Korean’s policy.

The mere fact that he met with Kim, a legitimizing act that all earlier U.S. presidents rejected, earned Trump praise from his supporters.  Paul LePage, then Maine’s governor, joined a few other GOP leaders to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, merely for agreeing to meet with Kim.

Trump went where no other president has tread and, if he won the Nobel Prize, he would match, if not surpass, the prize awarded to President Obama, whose presidency he wants entirely to erase.

At last week’s meeting in Sweden, stern-faced North Koreans ended the discussion in hours, concluding that the Americans proposed nothing new.  Because the Trump administration does not want to admit failure, it put a good face on the session and offered to meet again.

The split results from missed perceptions on both sides.  When objectives are firmly held and cannot be reconciled, no accord is possible.

Almost the highest priority for North Korea is to be a nuclear power.  It fears a possible takeover by prosperous South Korea, backed by the U.S.  It exports its nuclear and missile technology, gaining hard currency to finance purchases in the world market.  And its nuclear status makes it independent of great power pressure.

The U.S. has long sought to limit the number of countries with nuclear weapons to reduce the risk of a disastrous international conflict.  That explains its tough stance with respect to North Korea, which has nuclear weapons, and Iran, which doesn’t.

North Korea wants the U.S. to lift sanctions that almost cut off all of its trade with other countries.  If all sanctions were lifted, it might agree to freeze its nuclear development at its current, relatively advanced level.  It rejects the current American offer, a partial deal requiring a freeze in return for lifting a few sanctions.

The U.S. promises economic aid and the end of sanctions, if North Korea eliminates its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities.  It wants the freeze first, to be followed by some sanctions relief.  It might then permit a formal end of the Korean War.

The Trump-Kim contacts have revealed that North Korea will not back off.  It gets some help from China and Russia, which wink at U.N. sanctions.  There’s no realistic chance of Kim giving way.  Even when he seems to agree, North Korea cheats on the deal.

North Korea appears to have given the U.S. until the end of 2019 to make major concessions.  Kim reasons that Trump may want to have a diplomatic trophy for the 2020 elections.  But there is little room for the U.S. to give up anything.

Kim reportedly plans to step up nuclear work next year in the belief that Trump will avoid conflict in an election year.  North Korea might not attack, but it adds increasingly powerful weapons whose potential alarmed Trump enough to cancel an agreement with Iran that blocked its nuclear development for “only” 15 years.

North Korea may be the most dangerous military threat to the U.S.  Chances are, though, you won’t hear much about it.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.