The premise behind the recent Trump-Kim summit was that if we negotiate an exchange—if we give the North Koreans something that they want and they give us the denuclearization that we want—everyone comes out ahead.
That premise rests on a fraud.
The easiest way to see the nature of this fraud is to ask a simple question: Why are we not worried about the nuclear arsenals of, say, England or France, which are far greater than North Korea’s? Why are North Korea’s weapons such a danger to us?
It’s only because North Korea is an enemy of freedom, while those other countries are not. Whatever the inconsistencies—and they are many—in America’s political system, and in that of most of the West, individual liberty remains a moral value. The British and French have no desire to subjugate us—but North Korea does. It has openly declared its willingness to attack us. It is a brutal, oppressive state in which no freedom is permitted. A government that murders and enslaves its own people would have no compunction about attacking us.
This is the same distinction we make between criminals and police. We fear the guns held by the former but not by the latter. We understand that criminals are dangerous because they are oblivious to our rights, while the police exist to protect them. Similarly, the fundamental purpose of our military power is to defend freedom, while the purpose of North Korea’s is to destroy it.
The danger is not that North Korea will defeat us, but simply that it has, or will have, the capacity to kill many Americans. Will it be deterred by our overwhelmingly superior firepower? Perhaps. But our safety can’t rest on the assumption that a totalitarian regime, which embraces an irrational political system, will make some rational calculation of its long-term interests. We face a real threat—and our diplomats are trying to defuse it through “bargaining.”
If a mugger confronts you and says, “Give me your money or I’ll break your arm,” you may comply with his demand but would you regard the arrangement as a “trade,” with both parties benefiting? If he takes only half your money, do you conclude that you’ve made a profitable transaction? The removal of a threat—a threat created by the person offering to remove it—is not a value. It is not part of any “trade.” You are gaining nothing you didn’t already have; you are only losing. Only the criminal walks away with something he didn’t have before.
Is a “deal” with the North Koreans any different?
They have initiated a threat against us. In reaction, we have been trying for 25 years, across several presidential administrations, to find a way of “trading” for the elimination of that threat. President Trump, for example, has offered to halt the war games—the training for repelling an invasion from the North—that we conduct with South Korea. Which means we are reducing our means of defending against aggression in exchange for North Korea’s promise to reduce its means of conducting aggression. Is that a “trade”?
There are two ways of responding to a threat of attack, whether from individuals or from nations. One is to use force. The other is to buy off the aggressor, i.e., to pay what is commonly called “protection money”—and this has been America’s dominant strategy toward the North Koreans. We’ve tried to bribe them with all kinds of inducements, from oil to nuclear power plants, in exchange for their not threatening us. We’ve rewarded them, in other words, for letting us keep what we already possess: our freedom and our lives.
The fundamental problem is that the payment of protection money is a very impractical way of ensuring our safety. It works neither against criminals nor against criminal-states. It only encourages our enemies by telling them, in effect, that they needn’t worry about a military response by us, because we’re always open to an amicable “deal.” This appeasing approach is the reason an impoverished, backward nation is now on the verge of being able to launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles against the United States.
Many insist that since North Korea has now amassed such a deadly arsenal, we can no longer consider using force against it. But this argument represents a colossal evasion. After all, it is the arguers’ own philosophy—their refusal to use force back when we could have done so easily and effectively; their pretense that whatever we give away to that country constitutes a “trade”; their assertion that it is “selfish” for us to take military action without international approval and for us to declare that we are morally right and North Korea morally wrong—that has allowed North Korea to develop its military capabilities. It is because of the arguers’ philosophy that millions of people now face the possibility of a North Korean nuclear assault, when they could have been safeguarded had we preemptively eliminated the danger much earlier.
No matter how severe, or imminent, the threat from North Korea becomes, our “diplomatic traders” will insist that negotiation is always preferable to military action. There is no point at which they will not proclaim that some further concessions will buy us “peace in our time.”
As to what can be done now, with minimal risk to Americans, that’s something for military experts to determine. But the one option that should not be entertained—the option that has rendered us vulnerable to the whims of a two-bit dictator—is to continue believing that paying aggressors not to attack us results in a mutually beneficial exchange.♦♦
[A version of this article, substantially the same but with more of an economics orientation, was published at RealClearMarkets on June 26, 2018, under the title “North Korea Negotiations Rest on Fraudulent Economic Principle.”]