Responding to North Korea
Now that Pyongyang has conducted its third nuclear test, the international community must accept what it cannot change: North Korea is a nuclear-arming state.
No sanctions, no carrots, no rhetoric, no threat, no military act is likely to change this fact. The question now is how to minimize risks. First, we need to take a deep breath before we leap to any new policy.
The impulse to push the North’s nuclear toothpaste back into the tube will remain. But sanctions have repeatedly failed. For reasons known only to itself, China — the one country that can effectively pinch North Korea both economically and politically — continues to provide Pyongyang with energy and foodstuffs. Beijing’s policy will likely continue.
What about military action? Contemplated during the Clinton administration and perhaps since, it never has been attractive and is now likely less so, for several reasons. Yes, intelligence now knows the address of Pyongyang’s Yonbong enrichment plant. But not the presumed additional sites. Nor can it reliably pinpoint stocks generated by the North’s now moribund plutonium production program, given the country’s vast network of hardened caves.
There is a more ominous risk: Military strikes could ignite a new Korean war. Yes, the South and its allies could prevail. But at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives that would be lost to the many thousands of artillery shells Pyongyang could launch.
Another Korean war is not worth that if the North can be contained. Containment could involve several options: reintroducing U.S. nuclear weapons into the South; augmenting Washington’s offshore capacity; increasing U.S. forces in South Korea; bolstering the capability of the South Korean military; and pressing Pyongyang’s economic isolation. Short of that the international community could ignore Pyongyang’s atomic and rocket tests — conceding there is little that can be done. Alternatively, it could pursue diplomatic measures to reduce nuclear arms use.
The choices have their pluses and minuses.
The United States removed nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. Reintroduction would likely generate even more bombast by Pyongyang and perhaps lead to more nuclear tests. However, putting the U.S. bomb back in the South has the advantage of making the statement that any nuclear threat by the North comes with grave risk to the regime. Because such weapons could not be easily transported into and out of the theater as naval nuclear forces, a ground presence would make the deterrent palpable.
Increasing U.S. and South Korean conventional forces, however, would serve little purpose. Though Washington has drawn down its air, ground and naval forces to roughly 28,000, the South has an extremely capable military.
What about more sanctions? North Korea today is perhaps the world’s most sanctioned country. It is hard to see what additional penalties can be imposed to make it bend. Renewed focus on stemming Pyongyang’s money laundering and use of front companies might be helpful, but the North has been nimble in compensating.
By contrast, ignoring Pyongyang’s detonation and bombast could be indulged, considering that the South Korean population has adapted to the North’s repeated threats and tests. Yet this path could feed Pyongyang’s hubris that the South and its allies are paper tigers ripe for intimidation.
Alternatively, the United States could swallow its pride, accept the North’s nuclear arming for what it is and normalize relations — banking that diplomatic ties could reduce tensions generally and particularly lower the risk of nuclear war. The North could, however, use relations to blackmail the United States — threatening to cease contact unless Washington came up with economic or other concessions.
Then there is a China card that Japan and South Korea could manipulate. Through their pundits or politicians, either could declare that the time has come to reconsider non-proliferation vows that could prod Beijing to put the squeeze on the North or risk a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. Even talk about the option, however, could exacerbate already simmering tensions if Tokyo were to take the lead.
While we can clearly exclude some options — like a U.S. military strike on North Korea’s nuclear sites — the benefits of other solutions remain murky.
Rather than rush one way or another, the best course would be for Washington and its allies — following their perfunctory declarations of dismay — to take a deep breath and carefully evaluate options rather than respond compulsively.
Pyongyang still has a long way to go before it becomes a credible nuclear threat.
PHOTO: A video grab from KCNA shows the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket launching at North Korea’s West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control center in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province in this video released by KCNA in Pyongyang December 13, 2012. KCNA said the video was taken December 12, 2012. REUTERS/KCNA (NORTH KOREA)