When North Korea dominates U.S. news cycles, the headlines are ominous — a new nuclear weapons test, or a ballistic missile flying into space. Today, however, diplomacy with North Korea has begun. Where this saga goes from here is anyone’s guess. But there are important reasons that every American should be paying close attention.
First, North Korea is a genuine threat to the lives of millions of Americans, both in the United States and abroad. Hundreds of thousands of Americans — civilians and military — live in Guam, South Korea and Japan and are in direct danger from North Korean attack. And whether or not they have mastered all the technology necessary to use it, North Korea now possesses a missile capable of hitting most of the continental United States.
If war broke out with North Korea, there’s no telling where the devastation would end. The U.S. military would be sent into battle. North Korea may launch cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure in the United States. China would likely enter the conflict, risking a war between the world’s two largest economies. Americans in Asia would die, not to mention millions of Koreans living on the peninsula. And North Korea may well attempt to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile at an American city.
A war with North Korea would also severely damage global trade between some of the world’s largest economies — China, Japan, South Korea — which would directly hit businesses and spike consumer prices throughout the United States. Japan’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the United States supports more than 850,000 U.S. jobs, and South Korea’s FDI in the United States supports almost 52,000 American jobs. A conflict in northeastern Asia could quickly harm companies that employ Americans from Alabama to Ohio, Missouri to Kentucky, Tennessee to Indiana and beyond. A war would damage trade flows with Japan and South Korea, which could hit billions of dollars of American exports from agricultural products to machinery and beyond.
Second, the good news is that the United States has the ability to stop North Korea through deterrence. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the top U.S. priority with North Korea has been to deter North Korea from once again attacking its neighbors or the United States — and aside from a handful of individual incidents, the United States has been successful in deterring North Korea through strong U.S. alliances and the U.S. military presence in Asia.
The United States should continue to build its military and diplomatic capacity to deter North Korea from aggressive behavior and continue economic pressure to ensure that North Korea cannot obtain cash and supplies for its nuclear and missile programs. Taken together, these U.S. actions — carried out in close coordination with U.S. allies — can keep the peace and prevent a war.
Third, the coming potential summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will not mark the end of diplomacy, but rather the beginning. Whatever comes out of the summit, it will not resolve all the problems — nuclear weapons, missile programs, proliferation, etc. — because there is too little time to prepare and the two sides want different outcomes: Trump wants North Korea to get rid of its nuclear and missile programs, and Kim wants the United States to leave the Korean peninsula and drop all pressure.
Therefore, any genuine long-term progress with North Korea will require tough, detailed, and likely months- or years-long diplomacy. Challenges of this magnitude are not solved quickly, and the United States must seize this diplomatic opportunity to invest in a long-term process that can secure American interests. A rush to secure a grand deal at a summit will either be an empty promise or end in failure.
But the coming diplomacy is not occurring in a vacuum. For a year Trump and administration officials have spoken openly about launching unnecessary, preventive military strikes against North Korea. At the same time that Trump has agreed to a diplomatic summit, his nomination of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and his appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser signal interest in a non-diplomatic approach. In February, Bolton wrote an article making the case for a preventive U.S. military strike on North Korea.
A rushed summit — like the one in which Trump is about to participate with Kim Jong-un — is a high-risk, high-reward gamble. Using it as the start to a real diplomatic process could pave the way for a breakthrough with North Korea. But if the summit fails to secure all of America’s goals in one fell swoop, it could lead Trump to believe that “diplomacy has failed” and look toward his hawkish new advisers for military options, which would be catastrophic for all Americans (and the whole world).
Every American has a strong interest in a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the North Korea challenge. Supporting pragmatic, long-term diplomacy is the way to keep Americans and the American economy safe.