For decades, North Korea has been moving to acquire and develop deliverable nuclear weapons—the bigger, the better. Today’s hydrogen weapon test is a major step in that direction and a threat to the United States and its security commitments in Northeast Asia and beyond.
Nuclear weapons are not cheap. So why does a desperately poor country like North Korea want them so badly? Could it be, as some have argued, that the prestige-challenged Kim regime wants them just to enhance its image? Or perhaps the weapons are just for defensive purposes. Every year, the United States and South Korea hold joint military exercises that are designed to confront a(nother) North Korean invasion of the South. And every year, the North Koreans stage an apoplectic response, accusing the United States and South Korea of preparing to invade the North. Such explanations of North Korean behavior suggest it is defensive in the face of these threats, and that use of nuclear weapons is remote, almost theoretical, for “regime survival.” As long as no one invades them, there is nothing to worry about.
In fact, North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal is far more focused, offensive, and dangerous. It is designed to pose a direct challenge to the U.S. security commitment to South Korea and Japan. In the event of hostilities (i.e., a North Korean attack on the South) or even just exercises, the threat of using nuclear weapons against the United States could put a U.S. president in a dilemma: Either fulfill alliance responsibilities, and in so doing expose the American public to a possible attack, or blink and in so doing undermine U.S. treaty commitments around the world.
By any metric, North Korea’s People’s Liberation Army is far overmatched by the armed forces of South Korea. The Kim regime, however, may not share that assessment. Frequently, North Koreans refer to the “indomitable spirit” of their people, and celebrate in story and song mythicized triumphs where they were outnumbered and outgunned and yet ultimately successful in overcoming the odds. Their propagandists have explained away South Korea’s forces as a creature and creation of the United States, much as North Vietnam believed South Vietnam to be a mere shell. They also insist that South Koreans chafe under the influence of foreigners and want America gone. North Korean forces are not configured for territorial defense. They are right up at the border, poised to fulfill a mission of unification.
Comical as it may appear, there’s a purpose to all these theatrics: the North Koreans want to reduce the exercises in scope and content. It would be the first step is weakening the relationship between the South Korean and U.S. militaries.
Successfully dissuading Kim from his nuclear ambitions will obviously be a challenge; some analysts have even argued it is an impossible task. After all, so the argument goes, what on earth can be a powerful enough inducement to give up his weapons? That the nuclear-aspirant former dictators of Libya and Iraq are now long gone offers a compelling reason for him never to do so. Moreover, North Korea is much further along than these technology-challenged countries ever were, making its hypothetical denuclearization an enormous concession no matter the terms.
Interestingly, those who advocated “strategic patience” during the Obama administration now seem among the first to suggest that the time for a zero option on the Korean peninsula is long-since past, and the Washington must shift to “containment” and an acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status. In fact, the United States must do everything possible to prevent North Korea’s acquisition of a deliverable nuclear weapon. It is a race against time now: Since Donald Trump took office, North Korea has tested a hydrogen weapon and more missiles than ever before and also claims to have perfected miniaturization, a key part of making a nuclear device into a nuclear warhead.
It is often said that there are no good options. In fact, there are several that can only work if they are all part of an integrated strategy.
No lone element of a strategy can work on its own, and that goes for sanctions. But it is impossible to conceive of a successful strategy that does not include across-the-board sanctions of the kind recently implemented by the Security Council. These will directly stymie North Korea’s trade in areas where it hurts the most: coal exports and gasoline imports. Vigorous enforcement—especially by China—will tell the tale of whether they intend to be effective partners in containing North Korea.
Cooperation with China in and of itself will pose a major challenge. President Trump correctly identified China as a key player even during the presidential campaign, but his notion that simply outsourcing the problem of North Korea to China is not going to work. Nor will his peculiar idea of linking China’s solving of North Korea to a U.S. action to go easy on enforcement of international trade rules.
Chinese thinking, when it comes to security concerns of the kind North Korea poses, is not monolithic. For every businessperson in Shanghai who understands that North Korea is, at a minimum, bad for business, the national-security state is much more split. Many of China’s security analysts see a forward-deployed U.S. military as a more grave security concern than they do the North Koreans.
To make a China strategy work effectively is not to send out dead-of-night admonishing tweets, but rather to engage with it to understand the interests of each country, and determine mutually the end state each is prepared to live with on the Korean peninsula. If through a combination of U.S. and Chinese direct efforts North Korea were to be subsumed by South Korea as the successor state on the peninsula, how, precisely, would this affect China’s interests and its perception of its interests? Would the North Korean demise be perceived within China as a victory for the United States and a defeat for China? If so, what could the United States do, consistent with its alliance with South Korea and its respect for that country’s sovereignty, to mitigate Chinese concerns?
Beijing may demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops and security guarantees from the peninsula. This should be a nonstarter for Washington, and should be patiently but firmly described to Beijing as such. Such complex discussion must be pursued through a substantial and focused dialogue at an appropriate senior level— face-to-face, and over multiple sessions, with all issues on the table. (Recall that Nixon’s opening to China was the product of weeks of work by Henry Kissinger.)
What about direct talks with the North Koreans? Many commentators have gleaned that North Korea does not like to talk to the United States through China, and instead seeks the supposed sense of dignity that direct talks offer. The obvious problem is that the Kim regime has made it abundantly clear that it will not surrender its nuclear weapons through negotiations, but would welcome talks only as one nuclear power to another. The Trump administration should keep the door open, but remain cautious about bilateral talks whose only effect might be to take the Chinese off the hook. U.S.-North Korean talks could put the onus on the United States to make key concessions to achieve “progress”—a freeze on North Korean tests in return for the price of a freeze on U.S.-South Korean military exercises as some have suggested.
Even if the North Koreans continue to signal their refusal to denuclearize, keeping the option of talks available is vital for a different reason: The South Korean public expects it. Early in the George W. Bush administration (when neoconservatives held sway), there was no interest in resuming talks after the Clinton-era Agreed Framework collapsed. The consequence of no talks was that North Korea accelerated its nuclear program (much as it is doing now), and the South Korean public came to blame the United States for North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Polling data at the time confirmed this.
The United States needs to explore every direct means possible to retard the North Korean program—cyberattack, sabotage, supply-chain interruptions. What about an overt, so-called preventive strike? Putting aside whether this would succeed, it would also require safeguarding the roughly 20 million South Koreans living within range of North Korean long-range artillery. In short, it is not a viable option.
The Trump administration is currently engaged on the North Korean crisis across a broad front. But its execution has been problematic. Trump’s public statements have often sounded like something North Koreans would have written. “Fire and fury” have had the perverse effect of taking the pressure off the North Koreans, and feeding the narrative that Trump cannot manage a foreign-policy crisis. His statements have also undermined his effort to reassure Japan and South Korea. The outreach to China has been episodic, sometimes unmoored, and has failed to build any momentum. All of these elements—cooperation in the UN Security Council, reassuring South Korea and Japan, working with China—are in play, but they need to proceed as one, as any well-conceived policy should.
There is nothing inevitable about future events. American leadership must involve the creation of a policy whose elements reinforce one another and move forward as a whole. The United States has many assets to drawn on including relationships, technical prowess and allies. But one asset— time—is fast slipping away.