Zirpoli: Nuclear stalemate with North Korea will keep the peace

North Korea fired another missile last week after the United Nations approved more economic sanctions against them. Once again, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un made it clear that he is determined for North Korea to develop a credible nuclear weapon program, and who can blame him? Their nation is literally surrounded by nuclear powers in China, Russia and the United States (with nuclear submarines in South Korea and Japan). Nine nations in the world have nuclear weapons — why not North Korea?

Yes, Kim seems a little crazy, but do we really want to go there? When it comes to world leaders, I've seen worse, even among nations with nuclear capabilities.


In a column I penned 10 years ago, I wrote, "The situation in North Korea is just one example of what happens when a government — the United States government — refuses to sit down with another nation, one-on-one, and talk about mutual concerns." I wrote this in response to then President George W. Bush's decision to cut off unilateral talks with North Korea, initiated by his predecessor, President Bill Clinton. The Bush administration said that Clinton's policy of talking with North Korea was not working. Many experts stated at the time that cutting direct talks with North Korea would force them to be defensive and hurry their nuclear weapons capability. Sixteen years later and here we are. If talking to North Korea did not work during the Clinton administration, not talking to them clearly has not worked either.

The Bush administration canceled unilateral talks and joined a six-nation group to negotiate with North Korea. Bush thought that North Korea would take the talks more seriously because Russia and China were part of the six-nation group. But we now know that Russia was playing both sides — helping North Korea with their nuclear program while participating in the six-nation talks and voting for sanctions at the United Nations.

Frankly, I don't think it would have made any difference what presidents Clinton or Bush did. North Korea was determined to build their nuclear weapons program to guarantee their national defense. It is difficult to see how any other nation in their situation might take a different path.

Recently, South Korea stated that they would not develop a nuclear capability. How brave of them, especially considering that they are fully protected by tens of thousands of American troops on the ground and the U.S. nuclear capacity ready to defend them if necessary.

North Korea has a record of not following international accords and the United States is right not to trust them, regardless of what they say in talks. But the same statement is true with many nations with whom we continue to work and make deals.

I still believe that diplomacy between the United States and North Korea is worth the effort. If we can talk with Russia, why can't we talk with North Korea, which has not, unlike Russia, invaded and stolen land from neighboring nations, interfered with our presidential elections and assisted North Korea in building their nuclear program.

If we can't stop North Korea from developing a credible nuclear weapons program, what can we do to reduce the chance of them using these weapons of mass destruction? The answer is the same as with every other nation with nuclear weapons — a mutual understanding that using them will mean immediate destruction for themselves — suicide. Will this threat of mutual destruction work for North Korea? It will, unless Kim wants to die, and I don't think he wants to die.

What will not work, however, is verbal threats that force Kim into a corner and possibly a miscalculation of intentions. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently stated that the U.S. was playing North Korea's game by threatening them. "It is counterproductive to inflate this military hysteria. This leads nowhere," Putin said.

While I hate agreeing with Putin, he is correct on this point. Threats to North Korea empower Kim and make him a hero in the eyes of his people as he stands tall against America. "It is obvious," said Putin, that "they count on a specific reaction from the partners and they get it. Why are you playing along with it?"

The only thing the U.S. can do is help to keep the peace. Ignore Kim. President Trump has made it known that a serious threat to the U.S. will result in the destruction of North Korea. Kim has made it known that an attack by the U.S. will result in the destruction of South Korea and, perhaps, an attack on Japan.

This all sounds like a stalemate to me. In the world of nuclear weapons, however, stalemates are a good thing. Stalemates have kept the peace since the end of World War II. Once again, there is no upside in starting a war with North Korea.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is program coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.