The U.S.-ROK alliance has successfully deterred North Korea for sixty-four years and will continue to do so for as long as the peninsula remains divided along the thirty-eighth parallel. But deterrence is neither fool-proof nor a timeless solution to contain Pyongyang’s rapidly evolving and expanding nuclear and missile program.
North Korea has conducted eighty-four missile launches within the last six years compared to only thirty-two missile launches between 1984–2010. In 2017 alone, Pyongyang tested 19 rockets—putting everything in the air from short-, medium-, intermediate-, submarine-launched, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As far as the North is concerned there is only one trajectory: proliferation. From its recent firing of yet another missile over Northern Japan and threatening Guam back in August, to Kim Jong-un handing out instructions for “produc[ing] more solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips” and revelations of Pyongyang’s ability to produce light wound-filament casings, which will extend the range of its solid-fuel rockets; any news coming out of North Korea has been nothing but bad news.
It does not look different on the nuclear front. On August 28, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service briefed lawmakers that Pyongyang “completed its preparation to carry out a nuclear test at Tunnel 2 and Tunnel 3 of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.” Six days later, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. With an estimated yield between 50–250 kilotons, the regime confirmed our worst fears. Back in early September 2016, after Pyongyang conducted its fifth nuclear test (estimated to be 10–30 kilotons), Arms Control Wonk’s Jeffrey Lewis already warned that the regime’s nuclear arsenal would “grow in number, grow to threaten the continental United States, and eventually grow to include very powerful staged-thermonuclear weapons.” Following his predictions, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency finally admitted in July 2017 that North Korea “cross[ed] a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power” and is now able to produce a miniaturized warhead. And if this were not bad enough, the IAEA stated on August 25 that “North Korea has increased its efforts to produce parts for a new nuclear reactor it is building.”
What’s On the Table
By now it should be clear to anyone that time is not on our side. So, how can Washington turn this mess around? Currently there are four strategic approaches vying for public attention: (1) A preventive war or decapitating strike, (2) strengthening deterrence and implementing tougher sanctions with the aim of achieving diplomatic progress vis-à-vis Pyongyang, (3) negotiating a grand bargain between the United States and Beijing on the denuclearization and future of the peninsula, and (4) simply doing nothing, e.g. embracing the reality of a nuclear-tipped North Korean missile arsenal.
All four approaches have one thing in common: They have a grain of strategic logic embedded in them, but make for terrible policy advice. Lets pull them apart so we are on the same page.
On the idea of a decapitation strike or launching a preventive war, Secretary of Defense Mattis put it best by noting back in May 2017 that “it would be catastrophic if this would turn into combat.” Nothing more needs to be said to explain the magnitude of death and destruction that would devastate the peninsula in the event of war.
Strengthening deterrence is also not the way to go. The current alliance deterrence posture does not inflict any punishment on North Korea, does not incur any cost on Pyongyang, nor will any form of military posturing bring the regime to its knees. The value of increased deterrence only comes into play when deterrence is actually put to the test or when it finally fails. In all other instances, it merely imposes additional costs on the United States and its allies for the sake of reinforcing alliance commitments, enhancing force interoperability, and signalling military preparedness and intent. Maybe Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying hit the nail on its head when she rhetorically asked: “After so many rounds and vicious cycles, do [the United States and its allies] feel they are nearer to [a] peaceful settlement of the issue?”
Tougher and tougher sanctions are also not going to put us where we want to be. While North Korea experts, such as Bruce Klingner over at the Heritage Foundation, correctly note that there is still room to squeeze Pyongyang, the sanctions approach fails to address two critical concerns: available time and acceptable risk. Meaning, how many rounds of “tougher” sanctions are needed to force Pyongyang back to the negotiation table? And what level of political and economic instability is the world willing to entertain inside a nuclear armed North Korea? After eleven years of tougher and tougher sanctions, neither Bruce, nor I, nor anyone else out there knows the answers. Thus, for a strategy that is running against time, calls for tougher sanctions are simply not good enough anymore to count as sound policy advice.
Diplomacy will always play a vital role on the peninsula. But let us be honest here. After twenty-three years, six nuclear tests, and 116 ballistic missile launches, we literally have nothing to show for. The Kaesong Industrial Complex is dead—family reunions are on hold—and Deputy UN Ambassador Kim In Ryong made it clear on August 15, that Pyongyang will not put its “self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiation table or flinch an inch from . . . , the road of bolstering up the state nuclear force.” Given the history of failure and disappointment that has brought us to the here and now, one ought to seriously question whether talking for the sake of talking, as suggested by Stanford’s Siegfried Hecker, can actually ease tensions. Perhaps signing an unconditional peace treaty instead, as advocated by former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, will suffice to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program. I am not convinced that either approach is feasible. But what I do know is that diplomacy is what states make of it. And North Korea has failed to make any meaningful progress toward a peaceful solution on the peninsula since the collapse of the Six-Party Talks in 2007. So yes, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis is right to note that “we are never out of diplomatic solutions,” but President Trump is also correct to stipulate that “talking is not the answer.”
Henry Kissinger’s idea to strike a grand bargain between the United States and China on the future of the peninsula is equally misguided. Chinese scholars and government officials have time and again pointed out that “China has never ‘owned’ North Korea, and North Korea has never listened to China’s suggestions.” Indeed, Pyongyang’s warmongering has not only brought more and more U.S. military assets closer to the Chinese border than any other regional incident, but it has also forced Seoul and Tokyo to strengthen their deterrence postures and extend bilateral military information-sharing agreements. If Beijing had any influence over Pyongyang, it certainly does not leverage it in support of Chinese national-security interests. U.S. policymakers need to understand that the road to Pyongyang does not lead through Beijing, and that the administration’s new policy of “strategic accountability” wrongly assumes that China’s economic ties with North Korea translate into political influence. The bottom line is that Pyongyang only listens to Pyongyang, and believing otherwise is a recipe for disaster.
Doing nothing is the most dangerous approach of all. On the lower end, it would signal that the UN Security Council’s own resolutions are toothless and it would make a laughing stock out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). On the higher end, it might fundamentally alter the geostrategic relationships between the great powers, and most likely lead to nuclear chaos and the subsequent demise of international law. Given these profound risks it is rather ironic that despite the persistent failure to denuclearize North Korea, 122 nations still met in New York on July 7, 2017, to celebrate and endorse a draft Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test should be a wake-up call to the international community that tackling the underlying shortcomings of the NPT is key to unlocking a nuclear free world. Council on Foreign Relation’s Richard Haass explained the problem neatly by stating that “there is a clear norm against the spread of nuclear weapons, but there is no consensus or treaty on what, if anything, is to be done once a country develops or acquires nuclear weapons.”
Sometimes You Must Lose to Win
If all four options currently on the table are suboptimal, unworkable, or do not denuclearize North Korea in time, then what is Washington supposed to do?
Three words: Let deterrence fail.
With the Trump administration bound to lose the equation on the peninsula within the next year or two, the only way forward to avert a full blown North Korean nuclear arsenal is by radically modifying the constants and variables that are holding the current trajectory in place. Overall the strategy of letting deterrence fail would be aimed at: (1) building strong public support inside South Korea for U.S. military strikes against the North, and (2) rallying the international community behind a last goodwill effort to make Pyongyang comply with its obligations to denuclearize.