Can the U.S. Deter North Korea?

Obama faces hard choices

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In the wake of North Korea's deadly artillery attack on South Korea, the world is evaluating its options. There's no question that the U.S. will continue to play a key role on the Korean peninsula, but what approach should President Barack Obama take? The difficulty of deterring North Korean aggression has bedeviled U.S. presidents for years, resisting a careful mix of diplomacy, sanctions, military deterrence, and regional coalition-building. Obama has begun by dispatching the George Washington carrier group for joint naval exercises with South Korea. Here's the advice Obama is getting from columnists, pundits, and one former U.S. president.

  • Joint Naval Exercises Aimed at China, North Korea  The New York Times' David Sanger and Mark McDonald explain that the exercises are "both to deter further attacks by the North and to signal to China that unless it reins in its unruly ally it will see an even larger American presence in the vicinity." Still, the exercises are "largely symbolic."
  • Seek Rapprochement With North Korea  Former President Jimmy Carter writes in the Washington Post, "Ultimately, the choice for the United States may be between diplomatic niceties and avoiding a catastrophic confrontation. ... Pyongyang has sent a consistent message that during direct talks with the United States, it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programs, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the 'temporary' cease-fire of 1953. We should consider responding to this offer."
  • Why Engagement Doesn't Work  The American Prospect's Robert Farley concedes that neither a "grand bargain" with North Korea nor more small-scale diplomacy is likely to bear much fruit. "There is probably no single diplomatic outcome that is acceptable to both the United States and North Korea. ... Moreover, North Korea will probably undergo a leadership change in the near future. Putting together a grand bargain with a state presumably on the edge of collapse makes little sense from the American point of view. ... The United States apparently lacks the ability to confirm whether North Korea is maintaining its side of agreements. ... Under current circumstances, North Korea cannot be 'solved'; it can only be managed."
  • Reunify the Koreas  Former senior Bush administration official John Bolton writes in the L.A. Times that neither engagement nor deterrence will work. "Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea's threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough." Calls for forceful reunification are generally understood to mean an international invasion of North Korea.
  • It's All About China  The New York Times editorial board urges, "The international community — above all China, the North’s main source of fuel and food and the only country with any clout there — has to quickly come up with a strategy for reeling in North Korea. The Obama administration has to press China hard to finally engage. China has long enabled North Korea, making clear that its only real concern is stability on its border. But China should realize that an erratic neighbor armed with nuclear weapons is anything but a recipe for stability."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.