How to Respond to North Korean Aggression

What are our options?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

North Korea's deadly artillery attack on South Korea, described as one of the worst incidents in decades, has raised fears that the Korean peninsula could return to the extremely heightened tensions of 1993 or, worse, the violence of decades prior. Korea analysts have long warned that the prospect of a North-South war, though highly unlikely, would rapidly eclipse the violence of Iraq or Afghanistan as some of the world's largest militaries converge on one of the world's most militarized borders. What options do the U.S., South Korea, China, and the rest of the world face for responding to this attack and deterring the escalation of violence that South Korea has already threatened?

  • Protect South Korea, Engage North Korea  The U.K. Spectator's Daniel Korski sums up the long-standing two-pronged response to North Korean aggression. "The West has relatively few levers to change North Korea's behaviour - except to swear to protect South Korea (and Japan) in case of a full-scale war; or offer North Korea assistance." But, in truth, "Neither are attractive options."
  • Only Diplomacy; Avoid Escalation or Sanctions  The Financial Times' Aidan Foster-Carter writes, "[South Korea's] recent request for a return of US nuclear weapons will look more reasonable, but any action on this front will merely raise tension further. In all this there will be calls for further sanctions, even though existing sanctions patently have not worked. ... Bombing Yongbyon, the nuclear facility, is not an option; Bill Clinton did the horrific sums back in 1994. In short, the US has no good options, ergo it will have to talk in some form; albeit with egg on face and through gritted teeth. It looks like back to jaw-jaw in some form – but for even higher stakes than before."
  • There Won't Be War  Nightwatch's John McReary assures us, "The risk of large scale fighting remains low because North Korea lacks the energy - human and otherwise - to sustain it. The North can start a conflict and kill lots of people, but has no ability to sustain a war; cannot defend itself or its population from an overwhelming Allied counterattack and will lose everything built by Kim Il sung since 1953 in a war. Most importantly, the highest leaders know it."
  • China Must Take Leadership  Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis writes, "Ultimately, solving the North Korea problem is going to happen when the Chinese finally decide that they are through with propping up an erratic regime that seems to be trying to turn itself into the modern world’s first hereditary dictatorship. When that happens, I think we’ll find things will change dramatically, and quickly, on the Korean peninsula."
  • Prepare for the Worst: Build Up the Navy  The U.S. Naval Institute's official blog counsels, "If the peninsula explodes into war, and the United States is going to aid its ally, we are going to have to project power into the very den of the Dragon. For that you need a Navy. A Navy willing to fight, and willing to bleed, and willing to stay. And the ability to transfer significant combat power ashore quickly. Because it ain't happenin' by air."
  • Send Aid to North Korea, Particularly Food  The New York Times' Mark McDonald writes, "[A Korea analyst] said North Korea had become frustrated over the Obama administration’s refusal to remove a broad range of sanctions against the regime for its continuing nuclear efforts. 'They see that they can't pressure Washington,' he said, 'so they’ve taken South Korea hostage again.' [He] said North Korea’s first and most urgent priority is for food aid, which has been largely denied by South Korea and strangled by international and United States sanctions."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.