By Daniel DePetris
It has almost become a routine over the last several years: Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans receive alerts that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered yet another ballistic missile test during the night. The missile, typically of the medium- or intermediate-range variety, flies for a couple hundred miles and falls into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. The North Korean state news agency blasts a breaking-news bulletin for the entire country to see, declaring that the test was a glorious success for the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. A few hours later, the South Korean President calls an emergency National Security Council meeting to discuss the launch. The State Department issues a statement condemning the North Korean test as an unacceptable breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions; and Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo request an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting to determine what can be done to punish Pyongyang for violating the international body’s dictates. Several weeks go by, and the cycle repeats itself.
Indeed, experts who study North Korea’s missile capability remind us on a near-weekly basis that it is only a matter of time before Pyongyang is able to produce and field an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that has the power to reach cities on the U.S. West Coast.The question underlining all of these developments: What options does the United States have to deal with it?
Increasingly, the options for Washington are few and far between. As U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nicki Haley warned the Security Council this week, the United States "is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies,” including the use of military force required to protect the homeland. The next day, President Trump backed up his ambassador, stating serious consideration of options that would cause a lot of pain to North Korea, some of which he called “pretty severe.” One only needs to read between the lines to figure out what Trump is probably referring to.
Regrettably, reality is quickly setting in for U.S. officials—if it hasn’t already. In the words of Defense Secretary James Mattis, “[a] conflict in North Korea...would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes.”
Mattis is not embellishing. With roughly 15 million people only 35 miles away in Seoul (roughtly the distance from the U.S. Capitol to Dulles International Airport), Pyongyang’s retaliation to a U.S. airstrike could include the lobbing of thousands of shells into the city and its suburbs. The death toll would be so high that it would make the Korean War look like a minor conflict—in addition to approximately 28,500, there are tens of thousands of U.S. citizens within Jong-un’s reach. The mere possibility that Kim Jong-un could order even a limited artillery attack on the South Korean capital should force the most hawkish president to go back to the drawing board and rethink his options before giving the order to the bomber pilots.
The military option should always be a last resort, doubly so in the North Korean case.
Passing additional economic sanctions on North Korea’s economy in order to decrease Kim's revenue stream has been the go-to policy for U.S. presidents past and present. But to exploit the sanctions route to its full impact, some degree of Chinese cooperation is required. Unfortunately, Beijing has its own national interests in the region and has been unwilling to exert the kind of power that would collapse the North Korean economy. Even if Beijing were willing to do America’s bidding, the North Koreans have proven to be highly skilled in finding new sources of revenue, a skill that Pyongyang has learned out of necessity due to a lackluster economy to begin with.
The White House, for all intents and purposes, has only two viable options: try to resurrect some sort of diplomatic process with Pyongyang to at least suspend North Korea’s nuclear and missile work, or shift towards deterrence and learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
The latter scenario is seen by bipartisan majorities in Congress as de-facto acceptance of North Korea as a member of the nuclear club—despite all of the North's bad behavior over the previous two decades. But even falling back on deterrence would be a better alternative than launching a preemptive or preventive war on the Korean Peninsula, the worst on the list of bad options that would drag the United States into a regional conflict, taking thousands of American soldiers and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Koreans with it.
Negotiating, as stomach-churning as it is and as difficult as it would be, is therefore the only policy tool available to the U.S. if it wants to tone down the rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang and arrive at a mutual understanding about what is and is not on the table. There is always the lingering concern that opening up negotiations with the North Koreans will not resolve the problem—indeed, the Kim dynasty has broken several previous agreements in the past, which is one of the many reasons why D.C.-based hawks are convinced that diplomacy is a waste of time.
None of this, however, obviates the fact that talking to the North Koreans and exploring an arrangement that suspends Pyongyang’s progress in the interim is far better—and less overtly confrontational—than the limited choices currently in the U.S. toolbox. There is a negative stigma attached to negotiating with adversaries. But sitting down with people you disagree with is a sign of strength, as President Richard Nixon discovered during his trip to China in 1972 and as President Ronald Reagan demonstrated during his arms control negotiations with the Soviets in the 1980s. Far from signaling weakness, negotiating with a sworn enemy or rival is a bold and courageous move befitting of a world power like the United States. And it also happens to be the most effective way to advance America’s interests, possibly resulting in game-changing accords.
The U.S. has an opportunity to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully. Either it gets resolved, or the United States will have to get used to a Kim regime with a nuclear weapons arsenal. President Trump cannot let this opportunity pass him by.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on July 13, 2017. Read more HERE.