At a time when peace in Asia seems to hang by a thread of hope that untested leaders will exercise restraint, a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) seems a game-changer.
North Korea has indubitably demonstrated an ability to fire a missile capable of reaching U.S. territory. No doubt further work is needed on a reentry vehicle, and perhaps the Hwasong-14 missile might only be able to reach most of America if it carried a lightweight warhead. Nonetheless, North Korea has crossed the threshold of being able to aim nukes at the United States.
Will a 33-year-old dynastic dictator, whose regime one analyst said should not be trusted with so much as butter knives, be emboldened by his newfound ability to hold U.S. cities hostage with nuclear weapons? Or, might President Donald Trump pull the trigger on military action because he is frustrated by the actions of North Korea and the inaction of China?
While allied militaries must be ready to fight tonight, U.S. leaders need to remain clear-eyed in the face of danger. Over the long course of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, the United States has periodically looked hard at the cost-benefit analysis of launching a surgical strike. Each time, U.S. officials “blinked,” because the risk seemed higher than the reward. Once again, we appear to be moving in the direction of the brink of war, but in reality, officials are apt to reach the same conclusion as before.
The game has not changed so much as it has intensified. The United States finds itself not at the brink of war, but in a position where it must exercise constant vigilance to manage regional stability — or else find itself forced to choose between taking action that it will regret, or “blinking” and suffering a blow to its credibility.
Because the problem of North Korea is neither new nor going away easily, the best way forward necessarily builds on past policy. It calls for containing the threat and managing down risk. If U.S. policymakers lose their heads and think this is a crisis that must be resolved in the short term, they stand to lose a great deal. If instead they understand that time is on the side of strong and prosperous democracies, then the United States can eventually work its way out of this security predicament.
Is War Imminent?
By possessing long-range nuclear systems, North Korea could threaten not just war but also regional order. America’s alliances with South Korea and Japan have been cornerstones of East Asian stability, but the U.S. security guarantees that form the bedrock of these alliances are weakened by North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal. Kim Jong Un appears hell-bent on being able to hit the United States with an ICBM, as he simultaneously seeks to deter an intervention that threatens regime survival and to neutralize America’s military superiority. These aims are embedded in North Korean propaganda and threats to strike the heart of the United States.
So, are we on the brink of war? This past weekend, as South Korean fighter aircraft escorted U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations declared, “The time for talk is over,” Further, a new intelligence estimate has moved up the day of reckoning before Pyongyang deploys an operational ICBM to as early as next year, sowing doubt about the ability to forecast North Korea’s activities.
But for all the obvious differences between the two governments, Pyongyang and Washington both remain better at posturing than acting. Kim described the long-range missile as a “gift” for “American bastards.” The gift was sent twice in July, compelling Trump to insist that North Korea will be “handled” and Senator Lindsey Graham to warn that military options are “inevitable” if Pyongyang stays on its current course.
Thus, despite the heightened tensions — and North Korea’s programs and provocations surely raise the stakes and the risks — the current situation on the peninsula still does not approach the state of affairs that existed before the United States went to war in previous decades.
Before the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, Saddam Hussein was bracing for an assault, and the streets of Baghdad were lined with sandbags. Prior to Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, U.S. bombing plans figured prominently in the news. In Kosovo, NATO bombing started in March 1999, only after ample warnings and justifications for the use of force were part of the public discourse. Similarly, Operation Desert Storm was undertaken in January 1991 only after a long military buildup (Operation Desert Shield), and numerous attempts at reaching a negotiated settlement.
However, just because Korea is not yet on the brink of war does not mean that security is not deteriorating. After all, the proximate beginning of a war is often concealed by deception and the absence of public information. In the past, some U.S. shows of force and exercises preceding offensive engagements have been billed as mere defensive measures to underscore military commitments for smaller allies. The peninsula is perpetually in peril, and war could be renewed with little or no warning.
Even Xi Jinping laments that “the world isn’t safe.” The salient question, however, is not whether a threat exists, but what can be done about it. Among the conceptual options of ignoring it, eliminating it, or managing it, the third choice is the only rational option.
The Case Against War
No one who would have to fight a war or who holds responsibility for U.S. national security would agree with pundits calling for preventive war to end the North Korean nuclear capability now. Some may lament a missed opportunity in 1994, but even that seemingly straightforward task of a surgical strike on the Yongbyon plutonium reactor could have catalyzed a conflagration. As the brink of war neared, the Clinton administration blinked, but so did North Korea, and the 1994 Agreed Framework offered at least a temporary diplomatic off-ramp.
More likely than not, the 64-year-old armistice will endure, deterrence will hold, and war will not break out. North Korea’s quest for an ICBM is coming to fruition. But while Kim may be able to endure costs imposed on him for building nuclear-tipped missiles, he would never survive any attempt to actually use them. Deterrence remains operative because leaders retain agency, and no one consciously wishes to engage in a nuclear war.
Senior officials are fully aware of the potential costs of war. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has repeatedly stressed that seeking to resolve the North Korean problem by force would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” On a per-capita basis, the Korean War was one of the deadliest in history. Even so-called surgical or limited strikes on North Korea create greater risk and could escalate to full-blown war: As many as three hundred thousand people would be killed within the first days of major hostilities on the peninsula.
How the Administration Should Proceed
North Korea’s nuclear threat can no longer be held at arm’s length through a policy of strategic patience. To its credit, the Trump administration has placed the North Korean problem at the center of its national security policy and regional diplomacy, as an interagency policy review and summit-level talks suggest.
The Trump team should recognize the fundamental continuity between previous administrations’ responses to North Korean provocations and the prudent way forward now. Of course, decision-makers must take into account shifting circumstances as well as the May election of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who brings a liberal determination to restore inter-Korean relations and sign a peace deal by 2020. Importantly, Presidents Trump and Moon have pledged to “coordinate closely” every step of the way forward, as they play slightly different roles within a shared dual-track policy of defense and diplomacy.
Defense focuses on ways to strengthen deterrence, readiness, and capability. Many of these include building on measures that have already been taken, such as bolstering forward-deployed U.S. forces, layered missile defenses, and improvements in the strategic capabilities of both U.S. and South Korean military forces. But we can also ratchet up both offensive and defense systems beyond what we have considered in the past. For instance, in addition to rotating U.S. strategic bombers or other powerful forces to the peninsula, fielding boost-phase interceptors would get some attention, as would providing South Korea with more potent offensive capabilities.
President Moon has become a belated supporter of the THAAD missile defense system and is reportedly keen to double the payload of South Korean missiles. If North Korea stays on its present path, then the United States will almost surely seek ways to bolster South Korea’s strategic weapons. Announcing a new alliance nuclear dialogue would have an immediate psychological effect on North Korea. But even short of introducing nuclear-capable systems in South Korea, the allies could pursue advanced non-nuclear systems, from armed unmanned aerial vehicles and hypersonic munitions to electronic warfare and electromagnetic railguns.
The aim of these strategic upgrades in offense and defense would be to avoid a decoupling problem that might arise as North Korea’s ability to target the United States becomes fully operational. The United States may lose the political will to support its distant ally from incremental North Korean actions if an armed response threatens to ignite a nuclear war involving U.S. territory. In short, some would question whether the United States would trade, say, Chicago, for Seoul.
While defense has been a mainstay of bipartisan policy for preserving peace on the peninsula, the Trump and Moon administrations should embark on a serious strategic dialogue to stay ahead of North Korea’s capabilities, lest Pyongyang’s proliferation weaken deterrence and lull Kim into believing that he has bought any coercive power with his weapons of mass destruction.
Diplomacy encompasses both inter-Korean dialogue, U.S.-North Korean engagement, multilateral dialogue, and even some unofficial talks undertaken with government encouragement. Tensions are on their way up at the moment, but there is a reasonable chance that within a year we will find ourselves deeply engaged in talks within a diplomatic framework calling for denuclearization and a peace architecture. Improvements in offensive and defensive arms will need to be leavened with diplomacy, and President Moon in the Blue House will insist that President Trump in the White House give engagement another chance if conditions improve.
Even if some progress is achieved in such talks, the problem will be sustaining a deal over time. Recalling how previous attempts at engagement have eventually ended in failure, the prospect for successful negotiations is not great. However, the chances of success might improve if China were to get serious about pressuring North Korea to come back to the table without unrealistic hopes.
Unfortunately, China is more likely to push back on the United States than to apply much pressure on North Korea. Beijing fears instability and/or U.S. forces on its border, and appears to lack a sense of urgency for quelling the North Korean problem.
Nonetheless, pressuring China is not without some glimmer of hope. In particular, the twin prospects of strategic force upgrades highlighted above, backed by secondary sanctions, will give China a better shared sense of the importance the United States attaches to eliminating Pyongyang’s ICBM program. In addition, while immediate regime change is not current policy, there is good reason for the United States to consider long-term measures for separating Kim from his missiles.
Engagement and pressure constitute important aspects of the dual-track defense and diplomacy policy described here. Both need to be used to contain North Korea’s growing threat and manage down risks.
A steadily deteriorating security situation could eventually place us squarely on the precipice of disaster. Since force must remain on the table, the situation is apt to grow more dangerous over time.
The administration, working with regional allies to build on existing defense and diplomacy measures, can avoid the military option even as Kim grows his long-range capabilities. As long as the United States does this, it will remain on the ‘blink’ rather than the brink of war.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.