As U.S.-North Korean negotiations broke down, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un resumed short-range missile tests. President Donald Trump dismissed Kim’s gambit, explaining that Pyongyang had broken no agreements and Kim “likes testing missiles.” Although the Republic of Korea and Japan complained that the North was targeting them, the president was right to emphasize American security.
Today the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is seen as a threat to America. But objectively there is no reason the DPRK should matter much to Washington. North Korea is a small, impoverished, and distant state. The world is full of similar nations largely irrelevant to American security. The advantage of being a superpower is that one faces few serious and very few existential dangers.
Until Pyongyang’s recent development of ICBMs capable of targeting the U.S., the North had no means to strike America. Even if Pyongyang continues its nuclear developments, it will not start a nuclear war since doing so would mean the annihilation of the Kim dynasty and other ruling elites. States like North Korea have far more reason to fear the U.S. than the latter has to fear them.
The DPRK is an issue for Washington only because the latter intervened in Northeast Asia. That is, America waged war against North Korea and extended a security guarantee to, negotiated a “mutual” defense treaty with, and deployed troops in the ROK. Which made the U.S. a danger to North Korea. Hence the latter’s desire for an effective deterrent.
There were good arguments for preventing the North from swallowing the South 66 years ago, but acting as the latter’s guarantor today is entirely discretionary. Washington is micro-managing affairs in Northeast Asia because it wants to do so, not because it needs to do so. North Korea matters far more to its neighbors—most notably South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. Yet for years Washington took responsibility for the South’s defense, treated Tokyo as defense dependent, and confronted the North’s nuclear activities.