The North Koreans seem to see things in just the opposite light. They believe the US plans to use its superior conventional military technology to achieve regime change. In their view, had Saddam Hussein or Col. Gaddafi possessed a viable nuclear deterrent, both dictators and their regimes would still be standing. It believes, mistakenly, that the survival of the Kim dynasty depends on North Koreaâ€™s ability to hold US cities at risk with nuclear weapons. They probably also believe once they have a viable ability to strike the continental US, they will be able to negotiate their way out of sanctions. Paradoxically, it is thus racing towards the one condition that would cause the US to shake off its six-decades old acceptance of mutual deterrence on the Korean peninsula. President Trump was not wrong in saying Kim Jong Un was on a suicide mission.
Thus, both sides have cast away the idea that they had already achieved the ability to deter the other and blinded themselves to many possible stopping points on this descent into war. History is replete with nuclear weapons states that have found means to stabilize peace and security even in the face of challenges from new entrants to the nuclear club. One need only look at the example of China. When it entered the nuclear club in 1964, Mao was at least as volatile and bloodthirsty a tyrant as Kim is today and China was a much greater threat to US interests than the DPRK is today. Both the US and USSR considered preventive war but other roads were chosen that have benefited all of us breathing non-radioactive air today.
Denuclearizing North Korea is a worthy goal. But it is not worthy of a nuclear war in East Asiaâ€”even one the US would win. There are less appealing but acceptable alternatives that would leave US alliances intact and allow the natural advantages of the US and its allies to erode North Koreaâ€™s hostility over time. The same logic should apply to Pyongyang. It has been remarkably successful at playing off its many neighbors and the United States. It has survived the worst of its economic maladies. The greatest threat to its survival is forcing the US into a war in which it believes its own peopleâ€™s survival is at stake. The DPRK could easily return to its earlier deterrent strategy and survive for decades.