Diplomacy, not military, is key to solution in North Korea

  • Oren Jacobson

    Oren Jacobson

By Oren Jacobson
Guest columnist
Posted10/8/2018 1:00 AM

Recently, after President Donald Trump claimed he and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un "fell in love" via letters, Pyongyang emphasized once again that they need to see "trust-building" measures from the United States before denuclearization.

Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have struggled for months, including over points such as the exact definition of denuclearization. While Pyongyang wants to see these confidence building measures first, the United States insists that North Korea must surrender all of its nuclear weapons before further steps can be taken; a breakthrough on who goes first has yet to be seen. As these negotiations continue to limp forward -- largely thanks to the hard work of South Korean diplomats -- it is crucial that diplomacy stays the course. After all, the costs of war with North Korea will be staggeringly high.


For one, there is the risk of a truly catastrophic number of casualties from any conflict. The Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan bureau that provides hard data to members of the House and Senate, estimates that within the first few days of a conflict, between 30,000 and 300,000 people could die -- and that is with only conventional weaponry, before nuclear weapons come into play. Plus, some 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea alone, with another 40,000 in Japan; in other words, our men and women in uniform would be on the front lines of this war.

There is also the possible effect on our economy. A new report out from the Economist's Intelligence Unit estimates that an outbreak of conflict on the Korean Peninsula would slash U.S. economic growth down to one percent -- roughly as bad as things were at the onset of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Specific American industries would be put at risk, including the automotive and agricultural sectors, which have already suffered as a result of the uncertainty of other economic policy upheavals during this administration.

And finally, the United States has multiple treaty-obligated allies in the immediate neighborhood, such as South Korea and Japan, that would very likely get involved in the conflict and consequently escalate the war very quickly. Within North Korea's missile range is also our territory, the island of Guam, where more than 150,000 U.S. troops and citizens live. And lastly, nuclear-armed China would obviously step into any fighting on their border, and Russia might be right behind them as well. In short, there is no way that any "pre-emptive" or "limited" strike on Pyongyang, as advocated by National Security Advisor John Bolton, would not result in a much larger-scale battle in the region.

Overall, these facts establish that diplomacy is to be our first, best option for resolving the North Korean nuclear problem. We know that tough, principled, and American-led diplomacy is what really gets us lasting results. Though the process will be long, negotiations must persist and cannot be rushed or left half-complete for the sake of a purely cosmetic and political victory. Ultimately, the agreement with North Korea must include verifiable steps toward denuclearization, so we can see that it is working along the way -- and this can only be truly accomplished via diplomatic channels.

The catastrophic risks of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula are undeniable -- which is more reason than ever to stay engaged on the issue and push the Trump Administration to maintain diplomatic efforts, rather than militaristic ones.

Oren Jacobson, of Chicago, is a political partner with Truman National Security Project, a nationwide organization of diverse leaders committed to shaping national security solutions. Views expressed are his own.

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