CANBERRA – It has been said that history repeats as tragedy followed by farce. Speculation mounted to fever pitch that North Korea was set to conduct another nuclear test on April 16. There are three immediate takeaways from the tense crisis. U.S. threats and intimidation failed to deter North Korea from conducting a missile test; the test was a flop with the missile exploding immediately after takeoff; and there are no good options on North Korea.
The beleaguered Trump administration, adrenalin still pumping after domestic and international approbation for bombing Syria with cruise missiles and dropping the mother of all bombs on Islamic State militants in Afghanistan, threatened to solve North Korea too unilaterally. Washington announced it had dispatched an aircraft carrier group led by the USS Carl Vinson — President Donald Trump called it a “very powerful armada” — to the region.
Pyongyang kept up its shrill rhetoric of defiance. The world feared an imminent nuclear tragedy that turned to farce as the armada disappeared before reappearing thousands of miles away off the coast of Australia. “The revelation,” said The Wall Street Journal, “sparked ridicule in some corners of Asia and wariness in others.”
U.S. options on North Korea can be summarized as bad (strategic patience), worse (growing strategic impatience) and worst (military strikes). Washington is a long way off from being certain of taking out all of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in a clean hit in a preventive or preemptive strike. To protect its nuclear assets, Pyongyang has invested in road-mobile missile launchers that use solid fuel rockets. We cannot realistically discount the possibility of a nuclear retaliation by a regime with the freedom of nothing left to lose. However, a successful cyber sabotage of North Korea’s nuclear delivery capability would be a low-cost but high-return option, the precise opposite of a military strike.
The world must decide which is the least-bad option. Such an approach and calculation may be congenitally anathema to Trump. We first need to clarify North Korea’s capability. It has over 100 nuclear-related facilities. Its inventory includes about 20 nuclear warheads and the capacity to make another four to eight annually, several hundred short-range missiles that can hit all of South Korea, and a few intermediate-range missiles that put Guam and Japan within range. In the worst-case scenario, by 2025 it could have over 100 nuclear bombs.
Kim Jong Un is engaged in a furious sprint to strike the continental U.S. with a 20-kiloton nuclear warhead. But North Korea’s long-range missiles are unreliable and inaccurate, and it has not yet mastered the technology to miniaturize warheads, fit them on ICBMs and make them robust enough to survive the intercontinental flight.
It seems a safe bet that Kim’s primary motivation is personal and regime survival. The strongest stimulus to nuclearization has been the U.S. policy of forcible regime change. Senior North Korean officials told Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory: “If Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya had had nuclear weapons, their countries would not have been at the mercy of the Americans and their regime-change tactics.”
In turn, this means that threats are counterproductive: they re-validate Pyongyang’s nuclearization. Recently North Korean officials said that the strikes on Syria vindicate their nuclear choices “a million times over.” Far from madness, pursuing a guaranteed retaliatory nuclear capability, including submarine-based, is the most rational choice for Kim.
North Korea can raze Seoul within minutes with thousands of artillery shells. Japan is unlikely to escape substantial damage either. To bet on a 100 percent successful first strike on North Korea’s nuclear assets is to put very large numbers of South Korean and Japanese — not American — lives on the line. Short of credible warnings of an imminent North Korean attack, this equation just does not compute.
North Korea has provided evidence aplenty of the criminal nature of its regime. But nothing to date indicates it is suicidal. The allies’ massive conventional superiority would be more than adequate to deal with sub-atomic provocations from the North. Kim knows that a devastating artillery or nuclear attack on South Korea or Japan would unleash the full force of America’s military might and speed him on his way to a reunion with Gadhafi and Saddam.
The imperative to do something about North Korea arises not from fear of a reckless first strike by it, but from several other pathways to danger: Trump has the tendency to issue threats via tweets. His bluster just might prove convincing enough for Kim to launch a preemptive attack.
Kim’s serial provocations could incite a South Korea military response that creates an unstoppable escalation spiral.
A growing nuclear arsenal and delivery capability could lead to higher risk postures and deployment practices in an already heavily militarized region.
A growing stock of fissile material will increase the risk of theft and sabotage.
A well stocked but impoverished North Korea could proliferate weapons, materials and technology.
An unchecked expansion of North Korean nuclear warheads and delivery platforms will intensify pressures to regional proliferation to breaking point, making it a question of when, not if.
Bribery has proven to be a failed strategy. North Korea cannot be openly acknowledged as a nuclear power without the risk of cascading proliferation across the region. But its de facto nuclear status could be quietly accepted and the threat managed through a mixed strategy of pressure and engagement.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry led a diplomatic effort in the Clinton administration that came “tantalizingly close” to a grand bargain: “normalization of relations with North Korea in exchange for it giving up its quest for nuclear weapons.” Would Seoul and Washington agree to denuclearization that includes the promise of no use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons against a denuclearized North Korea and a peace treaty?
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.
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