Weighing the risks in responding to North Korea

The Korean peninsula has been divided since the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War. South Korea has always faced a hostile, antidemocratic, heavily armed, nation just an hour’s drive from the capital of Seoul. Now North Korea’s pursuit of a functional warhead that can reach American shores is a major security threat to the United States.

North Korea is a highly centralized communist state with about 25 million people and almost no real GDP growth. According to the State Department, the North’s annual military expenditures average about $4 billion, which accounts for around a quarter of the country’s average $17 billion gross domestic product. China is North Korea’s most important ally, biggest trading partner and main source of food and energy.

Take away North Korea’s nuclear weapons and it would be regarded as a failed state. In contrast, South Korea is a high-tech, industrialized economic power fully integrated into the global economy.

North Korea’s nuclear threat to its neighbors, America’s interests, and the rest of the world has escalated. Earlier this month it fired four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan’s northwest coast, provocatively landing about 200 miles from the mainland. The country’s missile program has progressed from tactical rockets in the 1960s and 70s to short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles in the 1980s and 90s.

The launches violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions and represent a direct challenge to the international community. The test launch apparently was a response to annual United States and South Korea military exercises that the North regards as a rehearsal for an invasion.

North Korea said its launches were training for a strike on U.S. bases in Japan. It appears that North Korea is on a trajectory to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States, something President Trump has vowed would not happen.

The day after North Korea launched the ballistic missiles toward Japan, the United States deployed missile launchers and other military hardware needed to create an anti-missile defense system in South Korea to intercept and destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

The North’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile development and testing program pose a security threat to the region and the global order. Decades of economic sanctions, diplomacy, and sweet words have failed to topple the neo-Stalinist hermit kingdom or force a rollback of its nuclear and missile programs.

The underlying assumption behind economic sanctions is that North Korea’s leaders care about their country’s economy and the deprivations endured by their civilian population. They understand that in chess, the pawns are always sacrificed first.

Tightening the economic noose around North Korea bought time without using American muscle, but at the cost of delaying hard decisions and creating an unacceptable risk to America’s national security. In turn, the breathing space gave North Korea time to develop its weapons program. It’s wise to remember soft power is irrelevant unless underwritten by hard power.

The North Korean mess is another example of U.S. administrations kicking the can down the road, then discovering at the 11th hour that they have run out of road. President Trump is dealing with a more dangerous North Korea than did any of his predecessors and has little room to navigate.

His options are limited and all involve risks, trade-offs and hard choices. They include continuing to increase the use of sanctions and hoping the cumulative effect will work, engaging in high-pressure diplomacy with China to rein in its client state, or cutting a deal directly with North Korea. All should be weighed against the risk of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Then there is the high-risk military option: a limited surprise attack on this rogue state. Or even allowing South Korea and Japan to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Sadly, the most likely outcome may be learning to live with a clear and present danger to the United States and its allies in northeast Asia

Originally Published: March 18, 2017