Why you should care
Because we should not rely on Cold War-style deterrence alone to deter Kim Jong-un.
John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.
The new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, visits Washington this Friday at a moment when U.S. diplomatic and military options for dealing with North Korea are tightening. China remains central to Washington’s success or failure, but America faces tough choices in seeking to apply maximum pressure on Pyongyang.
The death last week of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier after a year in North Korean detention added a poignant note to what had been mainly concern about the North’s accelerating nuclear and missile threat. The North has carried out five nuclear tests, two in 2016, with the last achieving the magnitude of the U.S. bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. By various estimates, Pyongyang already has somewhere between 12 and 20 nuclear bombs, and its missile program is moving quickly through tests to master the difficult steps required to get an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) across the Pacific to the U.S. West Coast.
One thing I learned in dealing with the North Korean problem is to never get too far out of step with South Korea.
American military options are limited, relying mostly on defensive measures — systems to shoot down North Korea missiles. The White House is hoping to base some anti-missile systems in South Korea, though the new government in Seoul is wavering on this. To further guard against anything with intercontinental range, the United States on May 20 successfully tested a more robust anti-missile system on one of its own long-range missiles. For extra security and to further pressure supreme leader Kim Jong-un, we could also propose basing some systems in Japan and on U.S. vessels to move along regional coastlines near North Korea.
In 2006, former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and Ash Carter (newly retired) proposed a preemptive strike to deal with what was then seen as a future North Korea intercontinental nuclear capability. That option was always bound to risk serious North Korean retaliation with conventional weapons capable of pounding Seoul. But the risk has now become unacceptable given North Korea’s expanded stock of missiles, some of which may already be nuclear capable. Perry recently said he would not consider a preemptive strike today.
One thing I learned in dealing with the North Korean problem is to never get too far out of step with South Korea. We must never forget that it’s their peninsula, that they know things we may not and that they deserve a decisive vote in any proposed action. When South Korean president Moon visits Washington next week, he will come with proposals for some combination of pressure and engagement, the latter aimed at getting North Korea back to the bargaining table. The White House should give him a fair hearing.
Moon’s engagement ideas trace back to the late 1990s when, as an adviser to then President Kim Dae-jung, Moon participated in what Kim called his “sunshine policy.” The theory was that a mix of joint economic projects, family visits, investment and tourism would expose the North to outside influence and gradually moderate the regime’s behavior. Kim Dae-jung and one successor recognized that the policy did not achieve all that they’d intended, but argued that it calmed North-South relations to a degree and was not in place long enough to get a fair test.
Moon has not been clear on what kind of pressure he recommends for the North, but the U.S. might be able to persuade him that stepped-up sanctions would also help push Kim Jong-un into talks. Moon has mentioned a freeze of the North Korean nuclear program as a worthy intermediate goal. To have real bite, sanctions would have to be expanded to include penalties for any banks that do business with North Korea — the approach the U.S. used to pressure Iran to suspend its nuclear program. Some Chinese banks would be hit, likely provoking protest from Beijing, because such sanctions would deny these banks access to the U.S. banking system and, by extension, to the international financial network.
China did go along with such sanctions against Iran, but Beijing probably puts North Korea in a different category because it is next door and a long-time Chinese partner. China also wants to avoid pressures on Pyongyang that could fracture the regime and strengthen Western influence on the peninsula. At the same time, China has incentives to cooperate: It worries about the destabilizing effects of nuclear weapons in the hands of a young, untested North Korean leader; it values its economic relationship with the U.S.; and Beijing certainly doesn’t want to risk spurring development of Japanese and South Korean nuclear arsenals.
Another possible tool for pressuring Pyongyang is the Proliferation Security Initiative, a program begun by George W. Bush and signed by 105 countries. It authorizes cargo inspections of vessels suspected of carrying banned nuclear and other materials. Given widespread concerns about the North selling its nuclear and missile technology, we could make a case for more frequently inspecting North Korean vessels as part of a program to increase its commercial and economic isolation.
If some such combination of pressure and engagement does not get Kim Jong-un to the table, and if he eventually achieves a nuclear-capable ICBM, we will have to rely on classic deterrence: any use of such weapons being met with devastating retaliation. This worked during the Cold War, but we had diplomatic relations with a fundamentally stable Soviet Union and a long tradition of bilateral negotiations and arms control — all of which are missing in this case.
So deterrence is not ideal. But it is what kept the Cold War cold, and that, combined with missile defense, may be the burden we and North Korea’s neighbors will ultimately have to bear.