The world’s options on North Korea can be summarised as bad (strategic patience), worse (growing strategic impatience), and worst (military strikes).
On 16 April, for the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the world came close to the nuclear brink again as the bellicose bluster of North Korea’s unpredictable Kim Jong-un collided with the belligerent threats of the mercurial Donald Trump. There was feverish but informed speculation that North Korea was all set to conduct its sixth nuclear test. The Trump administration, buoyed by domestic and international applause for the return of US muscle in striking Syria with cruise missiles and dropping the biggest non-nuclear bomb in history on Islamic State militants in Afghanistan, threatened to solve North Korea unilaterally as well.
To lend credibility to the implied threat of military action, Washington announced the dispatch of an aircraft carrier group – Trump called it a ‘very powerful armada’ – to the region. As Pyongyang kept up its shrill rhetoric of defiance, the world feared an imminent nuclear tragedy. Instead history repeated as farce when it turned out that the potent aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson was thousands of miles away in Australia and would reach Korea only in the week of 24 April. ‘The revelation’, said The Wall Street Journal, ‘sparked ridicule in some corners of Asia and wariness in others’. The geographically challenged president remains unfazed.
Setting aside the comical bluster-bluff sequence of action and reaction, there are three immediate takeaways from the tense crisis. First, the serial US threats and intimidation failed to deter North Korea from conducting a missile test. Second, the test nevertheless was a flop, with the missile exploding immediately after takeoff, confirming the sober assessment by most experts that Pyongyang is still some years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability that can hit distant targets with the required level of reliability and accuracy. And third, there are no good options and the world needs to decide which is the least bad option – an approach and calculation that may be congenitally anathema to President Donald Trump.
The world’s options on North Korea can be summarised as bad (strategic patience), worse (growing strategic impatience), and worst (military strikes). Before discussing the range of options, we first need to clarify what is known and suspected about its capability. It has over 100 nuclear-related facilities. Its inventory includes about 20 nuclear warheads and the capacity to make another 4-8 annually, several hundred short-range missiles that can hit all of South Korea, and a few intermediate-range missiles that put Guam and Japan within striking range. In the worst-case scenario, by 2025 it could have over 100 bombs.
However, North Korea is not believed to have mastered as yet the technology to miniaturise warheads to mount them on ICBMs, nor make them robust enough to withstand the rigors of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere with extreme temperatures and vibrations. That said, we have been caught by surprise at some of Pyongyang’s technological advances in the past and we know that Kim is engaged in a furious sprint to a weaponised intercontinental nuclear capability.
On options, the many past bribes (also known as concessions) have failed to abort North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. It is so isolated that tighter sanctions seem pointless. It cannot be accepted as a nuclear weapon state without a guaranteed cascade of proliferation by the already jittery South Koreans and Japanese. A military strike appeals only to the naïve dreamers.
Washington is a long way off from being certain of taking out all of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in a clean preventive/preemptive hit. To protect its nuclear assets, Pyongyang has invested in road-missile launchers (less accurate but less easily detected) that use solid fuel (which can be prepared quicker than liquid fuelled) rockets. We cannot realistically discount the possibility of a nuclear retaliation by a regime with the freedom of nothing left to lose.
North Korea can raze Seoul within minutes of an all-out assault with thousands of artillery shells located in the mountains across the DMZ. Japan is unlikely to escape substantial damage either. However, a successful cyber sabotage of North Korea’s nuclear delivery capability would be a low-cost but high return option, the precise opposite of a military strike.
The only external actor with leverage in North Korea is China. Like any great power, China has a vital interest in maintaining a geographical buffer – the reason for its counter-intervention in the Korean War in the 1950s. On the other hand periodic bursts of tension and crises distract China from its primary goal of economic development in a stable neighbourhood, with accompanying risks of war, nuclearisation, and consolidation of alliance ties between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. Progressively, therefore, China has been sharpening its rhetoric and increasing the pressure on Pyongyang, but even its leverage is limited.
The main reason for limits to Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang’s nuclear policy is that Kim’s primary motivation is his own and his regime’s survival. The strongest stimulus to nuclearisation has been the US policy of forcible regime change over the last two decades. So not just Beijing but Washington too must modify its policy to reduce the attractiveness of the nuclear option to Kim.
This logical inference is not mere speculation on our part. Senior North Korean officials have said to Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the US Los Alamos National Laboratory (1986–97) that “if Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya had had nuclear weapons, their countries would not have been at the mercy of the Americans and their regime-change tactics.”
More recently North Korean officials said that the strikes on Syria vindicate their nuclear choices “a million times over.” Pursuing a guaranteed retaliatory nuclear capability, including submarine-based, is a rational strategy for Kim. Incidentally but highly relevant, after the bombing of Serbia in 1999 even Chinese diplomats asked if NATO would have held back had Milosevic possessed the bomb. And senior Indian officials asked me whether I still believed India should have signed the NPT.
Former US Defense Secretary William Perry led a diplomatic effort in the Clinton administration that came ‘tantalizingly close’ to a grand bargain: ‘normalisation of relations with North Korea in exchange for it giving up its quest for nuclear weapons’. Unfortunately, ‘the clock ran out’ on Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Bush administration abandoned the path of negotiations with Iran as well as North Korea, and the nuclear programs of both advanced in leaps and bounds over the next decade.
Trump made a strategic error in dismissing China’s offer of a bargain deal without testing it. Would Seoul and Washington agree to denuclearisation that includes the promise of no use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons against a denuclearised North Korea, and a peace treaty to replace the formal armistice of the 1950s? The mixed strategy of pressure and engagement with North Korea must be supplemented by a yet-to-be-acquired reputation for global responsible leadership that balances nuanced diplomacy with calibrated recourse to coercion, threats and use of force.
If Trump wants global backing for restraining North Korea, he must not destroy the nuclear deal with Iran: that would establish the US as the rogue power bent on undermining critical international agreements. He must also realise that picking fights simultaneously with China and Russia is not the dealmaker’s recommended strategy for securing their cooperation in curbing and reversing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. US allies in the Pacific too appear hypocritical in their criticism of North Korea’s nuclear program when they themselves refuse even to attend the UN-mandated negotiations to ban the bomb. Pot. Kettle. Black.
Professor Ramesh Thakur of the Australian National University is co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN).