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N. Korea crisis not trumped up

The best hope for deterring North Korea’s nuclear program is for China to exercise its influence.
The best hope for deterring North Korea’s nuclear program is for China to exercise its influence. AP

The crisis with North Korea may appear trumped up. It’s not.

Given that Pyongyang has had nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for more than a decade, why the panic now?

Because North Korea is headed for a nuclear breakout. The regime has openly declared that it is racing to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States – and thus destroy an American city at a Kim Jong Un push of a button.

The North Koreans are not bluffing. They’ve made significant progress with solid-fuel rockets, which are more quickly deployable and thus more easily hidden and less subject to detection and pre-emption.

At the same time, Pyongyang has been steadily adding to its supply of nuclear weapons. Today it has an estimated 10 to 16. By 2020, it could very well have a hundred. (For context: the British are thought to have about 200.)

Hence the crisis. We simply cannot concede to Kim Jong Un the capacity to annihilate American cities.

Some will argue for deterrence. If it held off the Russians and the Chinese for all these years, why not the North Koreans? First, because deterrence, even with a rational adversary like the old Soviet Union, is never a sure thing. We came pretty close to nuclear war in October 1962.

And second, because North Korea’s regime is bizarre in the extreme, a hermit kingdom run by a weird, utterly ruthless and highly erratic god-king.

If not deterrence, then prevention. But how? The best hope is for China to exercise its influence and induce North Korea to give up its programs.

For years, the Chinese made gestures, but never did anything remotely decisive. So why would the Chinese do our bidding now?

For a variety of reasons.

▪  They don’t mind tension between North Korea and the United States, but they don’t want war. And the risk of war is rising. They know that the ICBM threat is totally unacceptable to the Americans. And that the current administration appears particularly committed to enforcing this undeclared red line.

▪  Chinese interests are being significantly damaged by the erection of regional missile defenses to counteract North Korea’s nukes. South Korea is racing to install a THAAD anti-missile system. Japan may follow.

▪  For China to do nothing risks the return of the American tactical nukes in South Korea, withdrawn in 1991.

▪  If the crisis deepens, the possibility arises of South Korea and, most importantly, Japan going nuclear themselves. The latter is the ultimate Chinese nightmare.

The Korea crisis is real and growing. But we are not helpless. We have choices. We have assets. It’s time to deploy them.

Charles Krauthammer is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

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