There have been many suggestions as to what the US should do regarding North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. For example, a recent piece by Denny Roy in The Huffington Post analyzes six options for US North Korea policy. In his words, these are “let China do it; use military force; apply tougher economic sanctions; negotiate a freeze; accept North Korea into the club; and stay the course.” As he says, all these options have significant drawbacks.
“Let China do it” means persuading China to increase pressure on North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program. Even if China had the where-with-all to accomplish this, pressure sufficient to make North Korea’s leadership change its policy would also risk collapse of the North Korean regime. This would most likely result in a US-backed ally (South Korea) on China’s border. Thus, China is unlikely to do what is necessary to persuade North Korea to abandon what it realistically views as its only hope of regime survival.
In the Trump era, many are advocating using military force. In this scenario, the US would take preemptive action — a “surgical strike” to wipe out North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. But this may not be totally effective because North Korea has dispersed and hidden many of these assets. And if there were surviving nuclear weapons and delivery systems, they would almost certainly be used against forward deployed American troops in US allies South Korea and Japan. Even if a surgical strike against North Korean nuclear assets were totally effective, it would very likely trigger a North Korean conventional missile and troop attack on South Korea which would first and foremost destroy Seoul and many of its inhabitants. Thus, this option is not very attractive — at least to South Korea and perhaps to Japan.
The US could push for “tougher economic sanctions” to be approved by the UN Security Council. But sanctions have not yet worked because China has not fully implemented them and is unlikely to do so. But even if it did, such sanctions are unlikely to force the North Korean leadership to give up its sole assurance of survival.
While I agree in general with Roy’s options and his analysis thereof, where we part company is what we recommend as the “least bad option.” He and many others recommend “staying the course” with a mixture of enhanced military preparedness, threats and sanctions. But this only amounts to kicking the can down the road and continuing the state of high tension with the increasing possibility of a clash. It is time for the bold approach of addressing North Korea’s genuine fears in return for a freeze of its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.
The US should recognize reality. North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and delivery systems that threaten its neighbors and US forces stationed in them and may soon threaten the US mainland. The negotiation of a freeze should begin on this basis.
There are concerns that this approach would legitimize North Korea’s international criminal and domestic behavior, undermine attempts to limit nuclear proliferation, damage any remaining American claim to international moral leadership, and betray allies South Korea and Japan. But by invading sovereign countries, killing enemies and civilians alike in drone strikes without the sovereign’s permission, and “renditioning” and torturing suspected enemies, America is hardly in a position to condemn others’ international criminal behavior. With these and similar illegal acts, the US has already squandered what international moral leadership it may have possessed. Moreover, America has a long history of tolerating and even supporting Asian leaders exhibiting criminal domestic behavior — like Marcos, Suharto, Park Chung Hee and the like and continues to cooperate with what it disdainfully dubs communist dictatorships with poor human rights records like China and Vietnam when it suits its purposes.
As for undermining attempts to limit nuclear proliferation, the US tolerates a nuclear India, Israel and Pakistan although they are not members of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. This has already undermined global nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Now new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has raised the possibility of helping South Korea and Japan obtain nuclear weapons. This means the US policy of nonproliferation is already full of holes and exceptions. Finally, if negotiations resulted in a “freeze” in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and a lowering of tension and the risk of war in Northeast Asia, South Korea and Japan would probably be better off than living under constant threat and preparing for catastrophe.
Of course, to obtain this concession from North Korea, the US would have to be prepared to make genuine compromises. These would include canceling its annual military exercises with South Korea and now involving Japan that North Korea understandably sees as threatening. And the US would probably have to assure North Korea to its satisfaction that the US will not attack it and will cease trying to effect “regime change” there. It would probably also have to agree to decrease its forward deployed military posture in South Korea and Japan and refrain from introducing missile defenses and far-seeing radar into South Korea and Japan. This should not be a problem if these forces and assets are there to protect against an attack by North Korea as the US often argues.
But if the US actually wants to continue the state of tension and use it as a cover to deepen and expand its forward “defenses” as a hedge against China — as China itself suspects —negotiations between North Korea and the US will be futile. Then “stay the course” will indeed be the likely US policy choice with all its negative implications for better relations and peace in Northeast Asia.