WASHINGTON – North Korea took yet another reckless step in late August when it fired, without warning, an intermediate-range missile over Japan. The international community had only begun to mobilize its response when Pyongyang further stoked tensions this month by conducting its sixth and largest nuclear test, which caused a magnitude 6.1 earthquake, and firing another missile over Japan.
These hostile actions have increased the risk to peace and stability in the region and therefore demand a clear and firm response from the international community. But, at this time, we lack strong and effective near-term policy options. Economic and diplomatic pressure takes time, but any attempt to use military force to destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in haste would lead to a catastrophic conflict.
Some Japanese friends have expressed concern that the United States might eventually recognize North Korea as a nuclear power and negotiate limits on its program. Serious American observers of the problems posed by North Korea believe such an approach would be a serious mistake. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the United Nations last week, nations such as North Korea fail to appreciate the responsibilities inherent to possessing nuclear weapons. North Korea claims to want to develop nuclear weapons to ensure national security, he noted, but will use its new power to bully its neighbors. The fact remains that North Korea’s nuclear program is inherently destabilizing, and the U.S. should continue to work closely with its allies to seek a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through peaceful means.
Such close collaboration helped move the U.N. Security Council to respond to the recent provocations by tightening economic sanctions on North Korea. The focus must now shift to implementation of these sanctions, and it is critical that all parties do so. The U.S. and Japan should continue to use all diplomatic means to ensure that other parties — particularly China and Russia — adhere strictly to these U.N. sanctions. While we hope that these sanctions will decelerate the pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, our main goal in implementing sanctions is to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. Sanctions take time to bite, and North Korea is unlikely to feel compelled to begin serious talks soon. Therefore, this campaign of pressure through sanctions will require persistence and patience.
On a recent trip to Tokyo, I was asked whether we should use pressure or negotiate in our dealings with Pyongyang. But this is not a binary scenario. Sanctions alone will never achieve our objective of a nuclear-free peninsula. The purpose of sanctions is not to impose hardship on the North Korean people, but rather to force the regime in Pyongyang to consider alternatives to its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons. Therefore, Japan and the U.S. and our friends in South Korea, even as we implement sanctions, should also begin to coordinate our future negotiation strategies in case sanctions succeed in bringing North Korea back to the table.
Implementing this long-term strategy of pressure and patience alone would be dangerous unless we simultaneously pursued a medium-term strategy to deter and contain North Korea. Let us not forget that the combined strength of allied forces on the Korean Peninsula has served as an effective deterrent for over 60 years. Recent North Korean actions have not changed the efficacy of our deterrence strategy. Americans appreciate that Japan, by providing rear support facilities to U.S. forces on the peninsula, plays a critical role in this deterrence effort. Americans hope that Japan and South Korea will make further efforts to strengthen their bilateral security relationship to reinforce the deterrence strategy we all share. The U.S. can help in this effort by hosting more frequent trilateral meetings and military exercises and by working with both of our Northeast Asian treaty allies to strengthen our missile defenses.
As we strengthen our deterrence against Pyongyang’s reckless military actions, we must also coordinate efforts to contain North Korea. The country’s nuclear program presents an increased proliferation risk. Japan, the U.S., South Korea and others must work together to contain this proliferation threat so that North Korean nuclear technology does not come into the hands of other states or nonstate actors. We also must prepare for possible North Korean provocations such as cyberattacks or incidents at sea.
Pressure and patience, deterrence and containment also will require clear and coordinated public messaging by all parties. The recent trilateral Japan-South Korea-U.S. summit in New York conveyed our shared resolve to the North Korean regime. Japan, South Korea and the U.S. must continue to remain in lock step with our public messaging to avoid any perception of alliance division or weakness.
North Korea’s escalation of tensions requires a multipronged strategy that includes both long-term and medium-term elements. Japan and the U.S. must increase and sustain economic pressure. At the same time, we must work together as allies in the medium term to deter and contain North Korea until we realize our ultimate vision of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
James Zumwalt is the chief executive officer of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA in Washington. He was the U.S. ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau from 2015 to January 2017. Previously, he was responsible for policy toward Japan and Korea as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asia Affairs in the U.S. State Department.