North Korea is An Example of How Twenty Years of Avoiding Tough Decisions Leaves Few Good Options

“The government nibbles around the edges of the problem, and they argue a good deal as they do so, but they fail to tackle them in substantive ways until solutions seem too radical or challenging to implement.”

While Americans were watching fireworks over the 4th of July, North Korea launched an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). Analysts at OpsLens and across the media have offered their opinions on the causes and possible solutions to this problem. But the lack of good options has broader applications concerning politicians who fail to address problems when they are more manageable, and essentially kick the can down the road until there are few amenable solutions available to them.

At this point, there are few good options in North Korea. The use of military force to strike nuclear testing and launching sites is on the table but carries significant risk. If the first strike fails to destroy all of North Korea’s launch capability, they could retaliate by striking Seoul. The recent tests fielded a missile that could even hit cities in Japan with little advanced warning. North Korea also has almost 10,000 artillery pieces within range of Seoul. They are placed in hidden, hardened fortifications and could rain down millions of pounds of shells in a single hour. The casualties would be so high that it effectively negates the first strike option.

The problem then lies in the fact that the other options have been tried for over 20 years and have had little effect. The Clinton and Bush administrations tried various sanctions, negotiations, and agreements only to have North Korea ignore them and continue its program anyway. The final option would be to accept a nuclear North Korea and then help nuclearize South Korea and Japan in the hopes it would produce a stalemate. But that means Trump has few options ranging from a costly first strike that might cause more harm than good, pursuing the same strategy that has produced little in the last 20 years, or prompting a nuclear cold war in East Asia.

This reveals an underlying truth about strategy and problem-solving in American politics. The sooner a problem is addressed in substantive ways, the better the solutions available. Inaction for years or even decades combined with previous bad decisions leaves few good ones on the table. Striking North Korea’s nuclear testing sites and potential launch sites, for example, would have been easier 20 years ago when the targets were fewer and less fortified.

Another great example is social security. As it goes bankrupt, it would be much easier to make small increments now, such as slowly raising the retirement age and indexing benefits based on income. But the longer politicians wait, the more painful the changes will be. Eventually the government will be forced to do a combination of drastically cutting benefits or large tax increases. They don’t act now because they still have the luxury of time, and they would rather not face attacks for being cruel for making these changes.

The government shows the same failure in regards to reforming the VA health system, the multifaceted conflict in Syria, addressing housing costs, the rising cost of medical coverage, and the root causes of homelessness. In every case, the government nibbles around the edges of the problem, and they argue a good deal as they do so, but they fail to tackle them in substantive ways until solutions seem too radical or challenging to implement. This is no way to run a country, and as we’ve seen with North Korea, it has a greater chance of leading to actual deaths.

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