Why you should care
Because the nuclear threat is drawing much, much closer.
The North Korean nuclear threat is nothing less than imminent — and the next U.S. president will face a decision none of his or her predecessors have had to confront with the same urgency: how to protect against or neutralize it.
North Korea has been a key concern of U.S. foreign policy since 1945, when the end of World War II brought the partition of the peninsula into a communist north and a noncommunist south. Until a few years ago, I would have described the North as episodically dangerous but manageable. In the last few years, though, a series of events and developments has moved the isolated state up near the top of the U.S. “nightmare list.” First, the North’s ability to project military power far beyond its borders has grown, dangerously. Second, its leader is not just implacably hostile to the United States — he is also much more volatile and unpredictable than his predecessors.
The Power Equation
North Korea has long had the capability to hurl artillery, chemical weapons, conventional military and special forces at Seoul, the capital of U.S.-allied South Korea. The city is a mere 35 miles away from the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two countries. The country’s arsenal and proximity have simultaneously worried and constrained both Seoul and Washington as they’ve tried to manage the threat.
But the next president will face a threat much closer to home — the prospect of an effective intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) exploding somewhere on U.S. soil. After years of struggle, Pyongyang is finally within range of that goal, which the intelligence community first detected in the mid-1990s. Back then, Pyongyang was incapable of managing the two- or three-stage missile sequence required to lob a missile from Asia to the U.S. But in recent years, North Korea has twice successfully launched a satellite into space with multistage rockets — a critical stepping stone toward an intercontinental capability.
Since then, U.S. military officials have publicly noted two new multistage missiles, the KN-08 and KN-14, displayed by Pyongyang but apparently not yet flight-tested. Both are road-mobile, making them harder to detect and monitor. The North is systematically testing the missiles’ component systems, and though it’s hard to say when it will be able to put all this together, the goal is now clearly within reach.
Add nuclear advances to the new missile technology, and you’re squarely in the nightmare realm. The North has now conducted five nuclear tests, two this year alone. The latest, in September, was the largest, with a yield comparable to the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Washington’s prestigious Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that Pyongyang has between 12 and 20 nuclear weapons and could over the next five years raise that number to as high as 100.
Isolated and Unstable Leadership
Eight other countries have nuclear weapons. Although some are U.S. rivals, we are able to arrange communications or formal dialogue with them about nuclear matters. We have none of that with North Korea, an isolated and opaque society headed by an untested, unknown and bellicose new ruler: thirtysomething Kim Jong-un.
This Kim is a breed apart from the two Kims who preceded him — father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Song. Both could rattle sabers with the best but were more mature when they came to power — and pragmatic enough to pull back from the brink in crises. The younger Kim came to power with much less preparation and by all accounts is ill disciplined, impulsive, insecure and brutal.
Data on purges is hard to come by, but Kim’s attacks on those who displease him appear to exceed in numbers and cruelty the records of his predecessors. The South Korean intelligence service says he executed more than 70 opponents in just his first four years. The three highest-profile victims were his uncle (and mentor), Jang Song Thaek; a defense minister, Hyun Yong Chol; and, most recently, a vice premier, Kim Yong Jin. Reportedly, the latter two were killed for napping or slouching during meetings.
Such penalties for displeasing Kim indicate that, as with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, no one will dare contradict the leader. The impulsive young dictator faces no discernible brakes as he expands his nuclear arsenal.
What to Do?
A new U.S. president will have to make some tough choices on the North Korean threat. He or she will have only about four kinds of options, to use either singly or in combination:
1. Tougher sanctions
The U.S. could try mobilizing a coalition to apply tougher sanctions. But to have real bite, they would have to include more painful penalties for countries trading with the North. This would provoke China, which — though annoyed by Kim’s behavior — has sought to shield Pyongyang from the worst sanctions and is still propping up the regime by offsetting the North’s shortages on food and fuel.
Negotiations in the early 1990s curtailed Pyongyang’s nuclear program for a while, but in 2002, Pyongyang was caught cheating, and the agreement broke down. China has leverage to help negotiations succeed — if it is willing. The North’s price, if it had one, would be guarantees not to seek regime change in Pyongyang. Monitoring the North’s compliance for renewed cheating would be challenging.
If the U.S. cannot halt the North’s nuclear program, it will have to resort to plain old deterrence. In short, the U.S. would have to make it crystal clear to Pyongyang that any use of nuclear weapons would be met in kind. The strategy has worked in the past — but with rational opponents. Playing nuclear chicken with Kim would make the Cuban missile crisis look like pinochle.
4. Preemptive military action
No president can take that option off the table. But any preemptive attack would come with a whole host of potential downsides. North Korea would almost certainly retaliate against Seoul. The resulting chaos could destabilize the regime, triggering massive refugee flows and humanitarian disaster. The U.S. and any partners would have to take steps to diminish the likelihood of these unintended consequences.