North Korea Primer: Assessing the Options

By Alex Moore/Photo Credit: Lee Chapman

This post exists for the purposes of outlining the options that the U.S has for dealing with North Korea’s ICBM and nuclear deterrent programs. You’re likely aware that the DPRK detonated its first nuclear device in 2006 and has recently successfully tested an ICBM (as well as already possessing a healthy stockpile of intermediate range missiles capable of decimating regional targets). As such, let’s briefly run through a few options that exist as means to achieve the end of freezing the Kim Dynasty’s nuclear program. Spoiler: no good options exist.

It should first be noted that I think the DPRK’s nuclear threat is wildly overstated and is what U.S policy makers make of it. We call them “nuclear deterrents” for a reason. Nuclear weapons have little use as offensive weapons, particularly when your adversary possesses second-strike capability (the ability to withstand a nuclear strike and respond with your own nuclear launch). The U.S has the most robust second-strike capability in the world, meaning that any preemptive launch by the North would result in the destruction of its regime. This is the premise in which mutually assured destruction rests upon and why I (and many others who work within the foreign policy community) think that nuclear weapons serve as a massively stabilizing force in international politics. I could write for days about the positive role nuclear weapons have played since the end of World War II and the naïve nature of idealistic proposals for nuclear disarmament, but that is for another post.

The most obvious option involves an American-led operation (that would more than likely involve South Korea and Japan) for the purposes of either targeting critical nuclear infrastructure, decapitating Kim and his leadership, or outright invading the North in the hopes of reunifying the peninsula under South Korean leadership. All of these options are awful. Long story short, war breaking out once again on the peninsula would be horrifically destructive. Millions would die, global markets would convulse as the South (the world’s 11th biggest economy) goes under, and the odds of outright war between China and the U.S (the world’s two most powerful countries) would be highly likely and would exponentially worsen the human and economic tolls of a second Korean war. For this reason, some hawkish voices call for surgical strikes against critical infrastructure. This is wildly risky and would almost certainly fail to 1. Destroy all of the North’s nuclear infrastructure and launch conduits and 2. Destroy all of the DPRK’s conventional artillery (and extensive biological weapons arsenal) north of the DMZ that could turn Seoul to dust within hours. A rational assessment of Kim’s deterrent capabilities render any proposals of preemptive kinetic strikes a risk nowhere near worth undertaking. Moreover, anyone thinking that surgical strikes against the North wouldn’t escalate to all out warfare are preposterously optimistic.

The second option is the China card. Although Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang is often vastly overstated, it still represents the Kim regime’s economic lifeline (Chinese banks act as a conduit with which the North accesses the world’s finances, for example). For China, preserving the Kim regime is a vital strategic imperative for a variety of reasons. The North acts as geopolitical buffer zone between China and South Korea (and the massive contingencies of forwardly deployed U.S assets in the South). China’s nightmare scenario is that the North would fall, simultaneously resulting in a humanitarian catastrophe with millions of refugees flowing into China and a unified peninsula allied with the U.S on its doorstep. In my opinion, the policy with the highest chance of success at eliminating the North’s nuclear program would be a great power grand bargain between China and the U.S that would make it in Beijing’s interest to (forcefully if need be) dismantle Kim’s nuclear program and begin to integrate the DPRK into the international system more. This would be exceedingly tricky, however, and would take herculean diplomatic efforts on behalf of Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing. This would have to result in a buffer zone Korean peninsula, non-aligned with the U.S or China and without a nuclear program. This is exceedingly risky as it would still result in a messy dissolution of the North as it would be unlikely to simply yield to Beijing. Moreover, this option has the potential to drastically backfire against U.S interests, as a Korean peninsula without U.S forward posture would then be at risk against Chinese aggression (indeed this may even be likely to result in an outright Chinese occupation of the North, creating an even worse geopolitical threat than the DPRK currently poses).

For this reason, I contend that strategic patience is the best worst option. While the DPRK nuclear threat makes for catchy headlines, I do not believe it is a threat warranting preemptive war or a geopolitical grand bargain with a revisionist and aggressive China. You may think the Kim dynasty is irrational, but a closer look at the history of its nuclear program shows that they are anything but. The North first began pursuing a nuke when the Soviet Union fell (and China was still weak) therefore forcing it to fend for itself against the omnipotent alliance of the U.S and South Korea. Diplomacy made progress with the 6-party talks until the Bush administration created the “axis of evil” of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. One year later, Iraq was invaded and Ba’athist Iraq was destroyed. 8 years later, the North watched as NATO cruise missiles pounded Qaddafi’s Libya, after Qaddafi negotiated away his nuclear program in 2003, and Qaddafi was killed by having a bayonet shoved up his ass (literally). As such, the North’s program should be considered nothing more than a deterrent for the purposes of ensuring the survival of the dynastic regime.