How to Approach the North Korean Threat

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Two basic truths for starters. First, no nuclear power has ever attacked another. Second, “de-proliferation” has only worked in countries that fulfilled one of three conditions, which North Korea has not.

A. The country is too weak to withstand a conventional assault. This is the case of Libya, which agreed in December of 2003 to terminate its quest for weapons of mass destruction. Recall that the U.S. had ended Iraq’s program by invasion and victory in the same year. Its leverage at that point was at a maximum.

B. The country faces no existential threats from strong neighbors, at least not those that can be countered by nuclear weapons. This is the case of South Africa, which in 1989 decided to scrap its rudimentary force. “Pretoria saw that the solution to South Africa’s problems lay in the political rather than the military arena and that the nuclear deterrent, along with strategic ambiguity, was becoming a burden rather than a benefit.”1[1]C. The country is part or profiteer of a powerful security system. This is the case of NATO member Germany, which began to dismantle its complete fuel-cycle (a theoretical weapons option) after the end of the Cold War. It also pertains to non-member Sweden huddling under the umbrella provided courtesy of NATO.

None of these conditions fits North Korea. It lives in a high-threat neighborhood surrounded by enemies (though of its own making) and three nuclear powers in the wings: the U.S., China, and Russia. The same holds for Iran, whence we may surmise that neither Pyongyang nor Tehran will de-proliferate, whatever the carrots or the sticks.

North Korea has pocketed all the benefits delivered since the days of the Clinton administration. Iran has signed the JCPOA, but is using the breather to perfect weaponization and missile technology. Both nations have learned that nobody has ever attacked a nuclear-armed state. To boot, both have vast conventional potentials whose defeat requires a massive investment of force. The incalculable costs, including a wider conflagration, have stayed the hands of Israel and the U.S. in their face-off with Iran. That kind of deterrence also weighs on the U.S. as it seems to ponder preemption against Pyongyang.

North Korea has yet another iron in the fire, which is China. Beijing will not stand by idly if the U.S. strikes at North Korea (recall China’s entry into the Korean War when U.S. forces approached the Yalu River border). War followed by the fall of the House of Kim evokes two nightmares. One is Korea’s reunification under Seoul’s and Washington’s auspices. In due time, this would confront China with a mighty American ally on its doorstep. So count on Beijing to protect North Korea from the worst.

The other nightmare is the collapse of North Korea under the pressure of murderous sanctions. Though Beijing, at the Security Council in August, agreed to harshest-ever measures, it will not follow through to the point where million-fold misery might unleash millions of refugees into China. In short, China is the guarantor of the status quo, including Pyongyang’s nuclear possessions and the eventual perfection of an intercontinental nuclear strike force.

Kim Jong-un may be mad, but he is not stupid; nor were his dynastic ancestors, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. To give up the bomb is to give up the most precious chips in the game of states: prestige, attention, and security, plus a wondrous blackmail potential that had produced so many material benefits in the past. Kim also knows a few more things.

China underwrites his regime’s life insurance. South Korea, its capital under the gun of some 12,000 artillery pieces and 2,300 rocket launchers, will continue to waver between clenched fists and friendly grimaces. Japan fears war more than North Korean nukes. So do the other players in East Asia. And so, if truth be told, does the United States. After all, three U.S. presidents before No. 45 have vowed to put their missiles where their mouths were. Why should Donald (“Fire and Fury”) Trump be different? Kim, like his forefathers, HAS measured the “correlation of forces” and found it tilted against the U.S.

A military option is as unlikely as it was in the Cold War and in the confrontation with Iran that segued into the JCPOA. The deal, at best, only slowed the country’s nuclearization. So what are the remaining options? They are as familiar as they are humdrum: deterrence, defense, and containment.

If the U.S. wants to forestall counter-proliferation in South Korea and Japan, it will have to keep deterrence alive by maintaining credible forces in place. Off-shore, deterrence is embodied in a mighty armada. In Japan and South Korea, deterrence must be served as always: with respectively 38,000 and 24,000 U.S. troops. Containment rests on the assurance of allies, which goes beyond soldiers in place, and requires a president who is decisive, reliable, and responsible—a guarantor of stability, not uncontrollable chaos.

Defense spells “missile defense” with three systems. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) is already in place in South Korea. It shoots down medium and intermediate-range missiles in the descent or re-entry phase. The sea-based Aegis system shoots down missiles in mid-course. So does GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense), currently located in Alaska and Vandenberg AFB in California.

The technology is far from perfect, but Kim’s arsenal is far less so, implying that time is still on the United States’ side, allowing for diplomacy and sanctions to prove their worth. Above all, the rule is to wield a big stick while talking wisely. Make only those threats you are willing to execute. Preemptive war is not one of them.


 1J. W. de Villiers, Roger Jardine, and Mitchell Reiss, “Why South Africa Gave Up the Bomb,“ Foreign Affairs, Nov./Dec. 1993.