In the wake of North Korea’s most dangerous nuclear test yet — one reportedly yielding enough destructive power to eliminate a city — it is worth setting aside all the blustering presidential tweets for a moment and considering what an actual strategy on North Korea would look like.
The first step would be to stop searching for silver bullets. That means forgetting about grand diplomatic bargains with Pyongyang or Beijing. Since 1992, North Korea has established a 100 percent record for cheating on freezes, frameworks and agreements of all kinds. We are past the tired cliché that Pyongyang must “make a choice” between nuclear weapons and acceptance in the international community. The North Koreans have clearly made their choice. Talking to Pyongyang might yield tactical insights, but any negotiator will quickly find that the North Koreans will no longer even pretend they are interested in denuclearization. It is dangerous and counterproductive for us to pretend otherwise.
Nor is a pre-emptive military strike going to eliminate this threat. The administration is prudent to plan for all contingencies, including the option of hitting nuclear-tipped missiles before they are launched. This is also the right time to demonstrate to North Korea that we will not be intimidated or blackmailed by Pyongyang’s belligerency. But the administration will find no surgical strike option that would eliminate the North’s weapons or avoid the risk of triggering a war that could cause a million-plus casualties across Northeast Asia. The White House appears to be encouraging stories that pre-emptive war is an option — and there may be leverage in that — but no serious strategy would be based on this course of action.
The third easy out — to simply contain the North Korean nuclear threat and live with it (proposed recently by President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice) is also unacceptable. We can be quite certain that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will use his growing ICBM capability to blackmail and threaten the United States, South Korea and Japan. More confident that his nuclear weapons will protect him against retaliation, he will conduct increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks and possibly military strikes against isolated South Korean targets (the way he sank a South Korean corvette in 2010). He may also threaten to transfer nuclear-related technology to hostile third states, the way his regime helped Syria begin building a nuclear reactor at el Kibar until the Israeli Air Force destroyed it in 2007.
If we make short-term diplomatic arrangements or give Kim economic aid to buy him off, he will drive an even bigger pickup truck through the plate-glass window the next time, demanding ever larger concessions such as the withdrawal of U.S. security guarantees from our allies. China, which would like to see U.S. alliances in Asia atrophy over time, will be an enabler of this North Korean strategy if we are passive ourselves.
In short, we cannot make a deal on the North’s nuclear weapons, take them out, or ignore them. Instead, a serious strategy would muster U.S. power and alliances for a difficult longer-term campaign to contain, deter and roll back this threat.
Strengthening our alliances will be critical. President Donald Trump has established an easy rapport with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but has gone out of his way to antagonize and humiliate our South Korean allies. The administration’s internal decision to scuttle the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) last week was an act of sophomoric economic nationalism and terribly timed in terms of national security — as H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson all reportedly warned the president. The Trump tweet attacks on South Korea’s president are also completely self-destructive — sowing the seeds of dissent with a new Korean president who is clearly pro-American and resolute on defense, despite his naive hope for dialogue with the North. (One cannot entirely blame South Koreans for hoping there might be a diplomatic way out of this nightmare.) Those of us who worked the Six Party Talks know well that when Beijing thinks Seoul is in play, China pulls back; but when North Korean actions are prompting collective security cooperation across the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korea alliances, China moves to pressure North Korea. If we cannot get both our major alliances right in Northeast Asia, we have little hope of managing this new threat.
A serious strategy would also strengthen the military and intelligence tools we have with our allies to check North Korean military ambitions going forward. Containment and deterrence can work, but only if we take far more active countermeasures than we have been to date. We will need a more aggressive strategy for defeating Pyongyang’s cyberactivities and to interdict North Korean movements of money and technology related to its nuclear and missile development. New sanctions put in place by Congress are only the beginning of that process and Beijing will need to understand that its firms will face further sanctions if China does not actively help with the interdiction and roll-back of North Korean technology acquisition and money-laundering. Integrating missile defenses among our allies in Northeast Asia will also be essential (South Korea was hesitant to do so because of Chinese resistance, but will be more forthcoming, as long as Trump’s strategy is not to alienate the South Korean president). The administration should also consider new military deployments, including cruise missiles in Japan or South Korea, that would demonstrate that we are working with our allies to expanding our options for deterrence and defense.
All of these steps will by necessity lead to more friction with Beijing, but that friction will simply have to be managed without trepidation. The friction will also have to be targeted. Beijing remains wary of regime collapse in the North and the U.S. is unlikely to muster sufficient leverage to change that bottom line. Instead, the administration will have to press for Chinese action in specific areas that hurt the regime leadership and constrain the North’s weapons programs. There is no shortage of Chinese firms now investing in North Korea or exporting dual-use materials — well beyond the initial sanctions list announced by the administration last month. Expecting China to act based on U.N. Security Council consensus alone will no longer be sufficient, particularly with Russia playing spoiler right now.
In sum, a serious North Korea strategy will require persistence, resolve and, above all, discipline. We can no longer afford conflicting diplomatic messages, gratuitous fights with allies, unfilled positions at the State and Defense Departments, or commentary from the commander-in-chief as if this were not happening on his watch.