On this, the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I am accompanying former basketball star and accidental diplomat Dennis Rodman on a visit to Guam. Like Hawaii was in 1941, Guam is an American territory with strategic military importance, home to around 7,000 brave American military personnel. And like Hawaii in 1941, Guam has been threatened by a foreign adversary. Instead of Gen. Tojo, Guam has been targeted by Marshal Kim Jong-un of North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a target for their potentially nuclear-armed missile strikes.
So why are we in Guam? Mr. Rodman has a professional reputation as one of America’s “greatest defenders” who muscled big-name threats and hounded perimeter players on the court in an all-out manner, always playing to his own drum. So now this “greatest defensive forward” in NBA history has gone forward to Guam to support the defense of his homeland. Just as earlier this year when we lectured at West Point’s Modern War Institute, we came here to demonstrate our support for the brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to defend our nation and our freedoms, and we are here to tell them that despite the escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea, we don’t have to be on a path to war, and we can resolve our differences peacefully with perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit.
North Korea believes it needs nuclear weapons. Why? The United States has made no secret of its desire for regime change in Pyongyang, and in recent years, the United States has made good on its promise to end regimes it did not find to its liking: Iraq, Libya and the former Yugoslavia, to name just a few. In the case of Iraq and Libya, their leaders even gave up their weapons of mass destruction programs in exchange for security guarantees that weren’t worth the paper they were written on. The North Koreans learned the lesson: They will do whatever is necessary to survive, including becoming a nuclear power.
But what North Koreans won’t do is use these nuclear weapons in a first strike. The claim that the true objective behind their pursuit of nuclear weapons is forcible reunification of the peninsula is absurd, as the North Korean leadership surely doesn’t want to mix 48 million Westernized and worldly South Korean capitalists in their hermetically sealed society of 24 million puritanical communists who denounce private property and believe they reside in a paradise on earth. They know that an attack against the United States would be suicidal. Unlike 1941, the U.S. is armed with an enormous military force deployed on the other side of the demilitarized zone. And remember that while Americans are rightly unnerved by the prospect of North Koreans having nuclear weapons aimed at us, we have had nuclear weapons targeted at them since the 1950s.
Some voices in the United States call for “pre-emptive” strikes against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to neutralize its nuclear capability. Dennis and I shudder at this. We have many dear friends on both sides of the Korean DMZ and in Japan, and innocent Korean and Japanese lives are no less precious than our own.
When I visited North Korea as part of Dennis Rodman’s entourage, I spent a few days with Marshal Kim Jong-un and the highest levels of North Korean leadership. Mr. Kim was friendly, eloquent, charismatic and has a quick wit. He was a gracious host, and over two days of conversation, he demonstrated himself to be well-informed, rational and intelligent. Most importantly, it was clear that he and the other leaders of North Korea enjoy their lives and have no interest in a suicidal war.
We believe there’s a glimmer of hope from Washington. Although President Trump has frequently used undiplomatic language to convey the sense of threat felt in the United States from North Korea and its leaders, he has also said more positive things about them than his two predecessors did in 16 years. On his flight to Asia in November, he correctly noted that the people of North Korea are very kind, innocent and decent people. He also described Kim Jong-un as an intelligent and savvy leader, and in sharp contrast to his predecessors, Mr. Trump has said multiple times that he would be open to meeting him to try to make a deal. Mr. Trump is a tough bargainer who does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. Yet, his use of the carrot in conjunction with the stick is something we have not witnessed since the Clinton administration. Just as only Richard Nixon could go to China, perhaps only Donald Trump can reach out and “make a deal” to end the North Korean nuclear crisis without unwarranted bloodshed.
Dennis Rodman and I have an ongoing relationship with Kim Jong-un, and we are in regular contact with North Korean officials, with whom we have built a solid relationship based on mutual respect and empathy over many years. While I don’t suspect that very many Americans would have chosen him to be an emissary or international goodwill ambassador, Dennis has had a long friendship with Mr. Trump and has also developed a very cordial friendship with Mr. Kim. In this tense climate, as we stand at a perilous crossing, Mr. Rodman’s unique position as a friend to the leaders of both U.S. and North Korea could provide a much-needed bridge to help resolve the current nuclear standoff.
• Joseph Terwilliger is professor of neurobiology at Columbia University.