The best option for containing North Korea

By Charles V. Peña

North Korea recently launched its second successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Many experts believe that North Korea now has the ability to reach the West Coast of the United States, perhaps even further. Given that North Korea is a nuclear power, there is understandable angst about the possibility that Kim Jong Un would launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. homeland. Yet, however undesirable, this is actually a risk we knew we’d likely have to face for more than a decade ever since North Korea became a nuclear power. And we faced the same exact situation against the former Soviet Union-- a far greater foe -- for more than 40 years during the Cold War, as well as China since the 1960s. The reality is that it does not mean doomsday or Armageddon.

The number of nuclear warheads North Korea is believed to have ranges from as few as 10 to as many as 60, according to a most recent estimate by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Moreover the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that North Korea has successfully produced a warhead that can fit on its missiles. However, what North Korea has not yet successfully demonstrated is a flight test of such a warhead on an ICBM.

The only thing we know for certain is that North Korea has ballistic missile capability to reach Japan because its test launches have landed missiles into the Sea of Japan. This could be the result of technical limitations or a deliberate choice by Pyongyang to demonstrate capability without pushing provocation beyond the envelope.

However, if the DIA's estimate is right, just because Kim Jong Un might have the ability to attack the United States doesn't necessarily mean he will. Indeed, Pyongyang has had the capability to nuke Seoul for more than a decade but hasn’t. So Kim’s motivation for his relentless pursuit of long-range nuclear capability may have more to do with his own survival than military aggression. What do Iraq and Libya have in common? Both countries lacked nuclear weapons, and both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were on the receiving end of U.S.-imposed regime change.

More importantly, the vastly superior U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a powerful deterrent. Unless he is suicidal -- and the evidence suggests otherwise -- Kim Jong Un would face the prospect of utter annihilation if he were to launch a nuclear weapon against the United States. It is important to remember that deterrence worked when America and the Soviet Union had thousands of warheads pointed at each other, and that supposedly "crazy” or "irrational" leaders with nuclear weapons -- such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong -- were successfully deterred.

So there is good reason to believe that direct deterrence will work with North Korea too, which is the primary and overriding U.S. national security concern. As such, it also means that military action against North Korea is not an imperative for U.S. policymakers because the choice is not between war on the Korean Peninsula that would be "highly deadly," "terrible", and "horrific," according to U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mike Miley, and "a nuclear weapon detonating in Los Angeles [that] would be [even more] terrible." We would certainly prefer otherwise, but the reality is that deterrence allows us to contain a nuclear North Korea.

Whether extended deterrence via a U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea (as well as Japan and other east Asian countries) will work, however, is unclear. Can we credibly persuade Pyongyang– -- as well as convince the South Koreans --that the United States is prepared to risk Los Angeles for Seoul? This is essentially the bargain of extended deterrence, but is that a price Americans are willing to pay?

And is that really in our or South Korea's best interests? Rather than a nuclear monopoly on the Korean Peninsula, we might have to consider the prospect of South Korea deciding that the best way to deter the North is with its own nuclear capability. The current situation between India and Pakistan provides some cautious evidence that such a regional nuclear balance may be possible.

A more robust deployment of missile defense (in both South Korea and Japan) may also be an option to consider. The Chinese have objected to deployment of Terminal High Altitude Missile Defense (THAAD) batteries in South Korea, but given China's inability to curb Pyongyang’s ambitions, Chinese objections could be a moot point for South Korean security.

Seoul should take primary responsibility for its own security rather than being wholly dependent on the United States. South Korea is the world's 11th largest economy with a gross domestic product of $1.4 trillion -- more than 30 times larger than North Korea's $40 billion GDP, which is just slightly more than that of the state of Wyoming. And South Korea spends more than three times the North on defense ($36 billion vs. $10 billion).

More important, a South Korea that defends itself would obviate the need for 28,500 U.S. troops to serve as a tripwire along the Korean border, and it would remove one of the main reasons North Korea has made the U.S. a target for its ICBMs.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear World on August 10, 2017. Read more HERE