As the situation with North Korea grows more urgent and intense, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on November 29 that, in theory, could reach Washington D.C. or New York City. This rocket test is a significant milestone for a country that has pledged to annihilate America. There are no indications that Pyongyang is stopping anytime soon.
So what can the U.S. and its allies do?
There are really no good options on the table. Mostly you are choosing from bad to much worse. For over twenty years, the North Korean nuclear problem has bedeviled four U.S. Presidents from both parties.
Now with North Korea ratcheting up the pressure, Vice President Mike Pence on a visit to South Korea in April 2017 said, “the era of strategic patience is over.” There are three main options, but each has a severe downside.
- Military Attack on North Korea
The U.S. has used strategic bombing in the past like Kosovo and in Libya. The North Koreans are experts at hiding their artillery and missile launching stations.
An unprecedented, strong show of force in the Western Pacific will do two things:
- Putting more troops will continue to put Kim Jong Un on notice. Nothing says you are “committed” to peace like tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the region.
- More troops and a stronger military presence continues to put pressure on the Chinese diplomatically and economically to make sure the North Koreans know we are serious.
China continues to play both sides of the fence. They are an unreliable ally when it comes to North Korea. This pressure would force the Chinese to take action with their “client state.” When it comes to war, the Chinese would not be unaffected with a second Korean War. A significant American troop commitment in South Korea would make China reign in North Korea.
What about a cyber-threat from North Korea?
Cyber is now the fourth dimension of war after air, sea, and land. Cyber-threats give the North Koreans unlimited range. Using high speed and small signature means, that can cripple America. Imagine a cyber-attack that targets the vulnerable infrastructure of the United States like in the movie “Live Free or Die Hard.” A cyber military strike that takes down the entire U.S. computer and technological structure. This computer hack would disable the economy of the United States (and the world). The North Koreans could inflict casualties similar to a nuclear bomb.
Can we hack North Korea?
If the U.S. attacked North Korea with cyber-attacks, almost nothing would happen. If you look at a satellite image of North Korea and South Korea, there are some big differences. North Korea is almost entirely dark outside of Pyongyang, its capital. South Korea looks like Fifth Avenue on Christmas Eve. North Korea has very limited power structures. Outside of Pyongyang, there would be almost no threat. The ramifications would be small. The North Korea power grid is very limited. North Korean society doesn’t depend on a central infrastructure. North Korea is a very backward country. Most North Koreans don’t have running water or central heating in their homes or businesses. North Korea is mostly rural without power.
North Korea is a primitive, almost third-world country. Most of its technology dates from 20 years ago or later. Most of the weapons that the North Koreans are using don’t need computers or at least very advanced ones to fire their weapons. North Korea’s aircraft and missile guidance systems have the latest technology.
What about a pre-emptive air strike on North Korea?
Russia and China are quasi-allies of North Korea. The Chinese will hold back. The Russians won’t react as long as we don’t threaten them.
If we attack any North Korean targets, it will trigger a war with North Korea immediately attacking South Korea. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is within conventional artillery range of North Korean batteries are just over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Whatever action the U.S. decides to do it has to be done with a great deal of planning. This planning will minimize South Korean casualties.
There are always military options. In this scenario, there are no good options. Any military action will get an immediate response from North Korea. This also includes limited air strikes on North Korean military facilities.
The North Koreans will answer our attack with a counterattack across the DMZ. The Korean War (officially we are in a “ceasefire’) will fire back up again. Either limited air strikes or an all-out war, the first thing the North Koreans will do is to attack south.
- Economic Sanctions and Pressure
China is the ally with the most sway over North Korea. The majority of food and energy coming into North Korea comes from China. Beijing sees aggressive sanctions as a step towards the eventual collapse of North Korea.
China does want the government in Pyongyang to collapse because it would yield to a massive wave of refugees. Plus, if the two Koreas were reunified, China would end up with a major U.S. ally on its southern border.
Multilateral negotiations helped to curb North Korea obsession of nukes in the past. In 1994, North Korea signed the Agreement Framework that suspended North Korea’s nuclear program for almost a decade.
- Direct Diplomacy
Does diplomacy matter? Are Presidential trips, diplomatic visits, and international summit meetings nothing more than pomp and circumstance and feel good measures that signify nothing?
President Richard Nixon’s trip to mainland China, which began on February 21, 1972, tells us something different. This historic visit started the slow process of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and Communist China.
In a world where Americans get their iPods and iPads from China, and the Chinese government regularly buys U.S. Treasury notes, allowing Washington to run up a trillion-dollar deficit, a single presidential trip was called “a week to change the world.” That’s precisely what happened with President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.
History is usually the story of epic battles and courageous last stands against overwhelming odds, but diplomacy is just as crucial as sweeping battles. Diplomacy allows the U.S. to deal with diverse countries and complex cultures as in China, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. Foreign and international relations during the Cold War kept the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. out of World War III.
Wars that are avoided, like in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and treaties that are signed by bitter enemies like the United States and North Vietnam ended the American involvement in Vietnam. New agreements that are forged in friendship with warring nations is the mandate of the United Nations.
What’s the Problem with North Korea?
Diplomacy only works if both sides are willing to have a conversation and an agenda. The North Koreans only want to have a conversation about the world, accepting their status as a nuclear power.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a dramatic step in normalizing relations with China. It was the first step in a slow process of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and Communist China in almost thirty years. Over the next forty years, that relationship would ebb and flow, but the two countries would remain reluctant allies.
Trump’s trip to China in November 2017, was a brilliant move to drive a wedge between the world’s two last remaining communist powers. Closer diplomatic relations with China can be used as leverage by the U.S. in dealing with North Korea, particularly on the issue of nuclear weapons.
Also, a massive U.S. military buildup in the region allows the United States to make use of the Chinese as a counterweight to North Korea. Despite claims of communist solidarity, China and North Korea are, at best, strongly distrustful allies.
President Trump plans is to use China to contain North Korea’s nuclear aggression. China desires another ally in the world with an increasingly tense relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. The U.S. welcomed the possibility of making North Korea more malleable to U.S. policy requests (such as North Korea signing a peace treaty to disarm its nuclear program in exchange for U.N. aid and food).
President Trump scheduled the travel to meet with the region’s leaders to reassure them and the world of the U.S. stance on a nuclear North Korea. The message of the trip was clear- Either they needed to do something to contain the threat of North Korea or the U.S. will.
What does North Korea want?
North Korea wants recognition of its status as a nuclear power. More than anything China, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. want Kim Jong Un to come to his senses.
Kim is obsessed with his regime’s survival. In 2003, Muammar Gaddafi disarmed Libya’s nuclear program. No doubt Kim watched the deposed leader of Libya be captured and killed eight years later. The lesson learned was give up your nukes, and you give up your power. North Korea sees disarmament as an “invasion tactic” of the west.
In the end, a deterrence and containment policy like we had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War maybe out our only option. The job of the international community is to break the logic of Kim and nudge Pyongyang towards rethinking its nuclear goals.