North Korea’s announcement Tuesday that it had test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a weapon that could potentially be fitted with a nuclear device, drew widespread condemnation around the world and prompted General Vincent Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, to say: “Self restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war.”
Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s pledge that it will not allow North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons that can reach parts of the United States as well as its assertion that all options remain on the table when dealing with the regime in Pyongyang, the options to deal with North Korea are both limited and fraught.
The “self-restraint” Brooks spoke of has been in place since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice—but not a peace treaty—which means the Korean Peninsula is still technically in a state of war. The U.S. has about 30,000 troops in South Korea that serve as a buffer in the event of North Korean belligerence (a further 50,000 troops in Japan protect that country). The U.S. conducts regular military exercises with South Korea, sells it weapons, and is its main ally. This, as one might imagine, makes North Korea, which until recently was labeled the world’s only Stalinist state, insecure. It has repeatedly called the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises a provocation, an act of war, or a pretext for an invasion. It has also developed a sophisticated missile and nuclear-weapons program that dialogue, economic incentives, or sanctions have done little to deter. The North also has an array of artillery, medium-range missiles, and plutonium bombs that are aimed at South Korea and farther afield, all but ensuring any departure from U.S. and South Korean “self-restraint” will result in unprecedented bloodshed.