By Aaron Kliegman In 1991, Iraq boasted the world’s fourth largest army. It didn’t matter. The US routed Iraq with ease, ending Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. To Gen. K. Sundarji, the former chief of staff of the Indian army, the lesson of the Gulf War was clear: “Don’t mess with the United States without nuclear weapons.” After the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya, this lesson became obvious to everyone. North Korea learned it well. It’s silly to think North Korea would denuclearize in negotiations with the US. The North Korean regime sees nuclear weapons as its ticket to survival. Indeed, Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader, regards them as the ultimate guarantee that what happened to Saddam and Muammar Gaddafi — they were overthrown and killed — won’t happen to him. Nuclear weapons also give Pyongyang global relevance — headlines, attention, a feeling of power and importance. Without the bomb, North Korea would just be a giant concentration camp run by a bizarre and barbaric regime. With the bomb, the country is a major threat that must be taken seriously for more than moral reasons. We’ve offered every carrot possible to induce North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Food, fuel, money, even light water nuclear reactors — none worked. Today, North Korea has about 30-60 nuclear weapons, according to various estimates. Bribes and incentives will always fail. Just ask Thae Yong Ho, a senior North Korean diplomat who defected to the West in 2016. “As long as Kim Jong Un is in power,” Thae said, “North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards.” Sure, Kim will say he’s willing to give up his nukes under the right circumstances — and may even agree to surrender some, or at least to freeze his program, in exchange for American inducements. And then the story will end as it always does: North Korea extorts the US to gain some short-term benefits, all the while advancing its nuclear program in secret. It’s all a ruse — one for which Washington has consistently fallen prey. With all this in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised that, late last week, Kim vowed to advance North Korea’s nuclear capabilities quickly and significantly. He declared it necessary to make “nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for more tactical uses” while continuing “to push ahead with the production of super-sized nuclear warheads.” We also shouldn’t be surprised that Kim called the US “our biggest enemy,” adding that hostility will exist no matter who’s president. With each new day, North Korea increases its knowledge of nuclear science and advances its military program. Eventually, Kim — or whoever is in charge in Pyongyang — will be able to fit nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. North Korea will be able to destroy American cities. The regime has made alarming progress toward that end in recent years. In response to this threat, some people advocate deterrence, which means accepting the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Or, as Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies puts it: “We’re going to have to learn to live with North Korea’s ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons.” This is a form of acquiescence, which would only encourage other hostile regimes to get their own nukes. The lesson from Iraq and Libya would become too clear to ignore: Get the bomb, and you can do what you want. Plus, nuclear deterrence is no guarantee to prevent war, even among enemies more rationale than North Korea. And that’s the most important point: North Korea’s regime is a brutal cult run by a cruel, ferocious, and strikingly strange man. We can’t predict with confidence what Kim will do. Moreover, Kim came to power as a young man and will likely remain in power for decades. We can’t underestimate the psychological effect that will have, possibly making him more daring and crazier with time. He already fancies himself a god. How much more twisted will he become after 20, 30, 40 years of totalitarian rule? Indeed, Kim was just elevated from chairman to general secretary of North Korea’s ruling party, adopting a title held by his late father and grandfather. While the new title doesn’t change anything in practice, it’s symbolically important. And it shows Kim is poised to maintain absolute control of his hermit kingdom. This is all the more troubling because Kim wants to unify the Korean peninsula. That’s not just his dream but his long-term goal. He wants to expel the American military and, to quote his recent comments, “achieve peace and prosperity of the Korean peninsula.” Translation: Achieve North Korean dominance over the peninsula. The current situation cannot continue indefinitely, or conflict will erupt. So, what to do? American military strikes to degrade or destroy North Korea’s nuclear program would likely lead to war, which would be disastrous, even if it never went nuclear. At least tens of thousands of Americans would die. China would get involved. The South Korean capital, Seoul, which is near the border with the North, would be destroyed. Perhaps millions of South Koreans would die. And in the end, it’s unclear whether the US would achieve its objectives. Long-term strategies mixing coercion, diplomacy, and deterrence with the eventual goal of disarming North Korea and reunifying the peninsula sound nice, but it’s hard to see them actually forcing Pyongyang to get rid of its nukes. Again, to Kim nukes equal survival; no nukes equal exile or death. The answer, then, is getting China to pressure, induce, influence, even force North Korea, its neighbor, to denuclearize. The Chinese are the only ones with the potential capability, short of war, to make it happen. Indeed, North Korea needs China to survive, and Beijing is Pyongyang’s only real ally. Redeploying American low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea is one option that would get China’s attention. But Seoul would need to agree (hardly a guarantee), and the step wouldn’t be enough to compel Beijing. Unfortunately, the only way to get China on board is to make clear we’ll encourage South Korea and, more importantly, Japan to build their own nuclear weapons unless the Chinese help. The real prospect of a nuclear Japan is the only thing that will scare Beijing enough to act. This idea isn’t new: The late, great columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, often advocated it. But the proposal has largely been dismissed because it would undermine America’s essential commitment against nuclear proliferation. This is a valid, more than justified concern. But there seems to be no other way to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Of course, we’d need to follow the threat of no longer opposing a nuclear-armed Japan with a deal. China largely tolerates North Korea because it fears having a unified Korean peninsula on its border that is pro-American. For China, North Korea is a strategic buffer between it and America’s allies. So, the US and China would need to accept an independent North Korea that sides more with Beijing but isn’t allied with it. Nor could the new North Korea be belligerent toward America. These are the terms of a realistic compromise. But before we get there, let’s just hope Washington hasn’t forgotten about North Korea amid the chaos of the last 12 months. Because regardless of what’s happening here, North Korea is constantly advancing its military capabilities, even if we’re distracted. In short, Joe Biden’s team better have a plan for North Korea. Since we learned nothing about the president-elect’s policies during the 2020 campaign, we have no idea at this point whether he does. Odds are he’ll continue us on the path of accepting North Korea’s nuclear program without saying so publicly. That’ll just continue us on a path toward either war or capitulation. Since the former is unacceptable, the latter will be our choice. Which, ironically, may lead to war in the end anyway — unless the US gets serious about doing what’s necessary with China. Forecasting the next four years, Kim must be feeling pretty good.