Michael Auslin writes: Only a handful of nations have ever attempted to acquire a nuclear weapon—the ultimate status symbol—but once they did so, all took seriously the responsibility of managing their nuclear arsenals. Now, a new member is joining the club, one whose track record of recklessness, aggression, and inscrutability make terrifying the idea that it, too, will possess the ultimate weapon. Yet the real worry with North Korea becoming a nuclear power is one U.S. officials have so far ignored: Will Kim Jong Un respect the power of his nukes enough to make sure they are safe and safely controlled?
Despite official pronouncements that the U.S. will never accept a Pyongyang with nuclear weapons, the reality is that, short of a massive war that removes the Kim regime, North Korea appears unstoppably headed to becoming a nuclear-weapons-capable state. It may seem counterintuitive, but the U.S. needs to worry less about the risk of a North Korean nuclear war than about a nuclear accident. And as President Trump embarks on his trip through Asia, he would do well—as crazy as this sounds—to consider how the U.S. can help Kim keep his nukes safe. The best partner in this effort might well be China, the North’s only official ally and its major supporter. Regardless of the state of Sino-North Korean relations, which appear to be in a rough patch right now, Beijing remains the only actor close enough to Pyongyang to even try to instill some nuclear responsibility.
The Trump administration could reach out to the Chinese to encourage them to try to offer some friendly advice to Kim. Kim undoubtedly wants to keep the details of his program as secret as possible, but Chinese President Xi Jinping might offer some basic technical assistance on issues like launch authentication or setting up permissive action links. Helping train missile technicians in damage control and critical repair of launch systems might add another layer of certainty to the daily maintenance of nuclear weapons. And despite the distaste for accepting Pyongyang as a nuclear power, considering some U.S.-North Korean confidence-building mechanisms, perhaps even midwifed by Beijing, may come to be seen as a necessary evil in the new nuclear world. [Continue reading…]