United States policy for many past presidential administrations firmly states that a nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable to our national security interests and is a threat to peace around the world. This stance continues with the current administration. Unfortunately, despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation, North Korea already tested five nuclear weapons between 2006 and 2016. Some intelligence reports, as widely cited in the media, indicate that there may soon be another such test. Meanwhile, the North Koreans continue to test ballistic missiles, ever-increasing their sophistication and range.
The threat of a nuclear armed North Korea becomes real when they reach the capability to mount a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range missile. Experts differ on that estimate. Some say it is “years” away and some say it could come as soon as 2018. No one knows for sure, but they do know that the pace of the Korean progress towards that goal is steadily increasing.
When that day arrives, a clear and present danger will exist for the United States and for our friends and allies in the Pacific area. Thus the question: How to implement our stated policy of preventing that danger from becoming real? There is no easy answer.
The Trump Administration, like those before it, states that “all options” are on the table. The implied but not so subtle threat is one of military action. To take such action is not so simple as it may seem to some. In practical terms, North Korean nuclear sites are underground and the intelligence community is not positive that it knows where all of those sites are located. Reaching a hardened underground site with a conventional missile or bomb is difficult, if not impossible. It is possible to destroy such a site with our own nuclear weapons, assuming we have it correctly located, but despite the facile way some people talk about nuclear weapons, no credible official thinks that taking a first strike with nuclear weapons is part of the solution at this point. A bomb without a delivery system is not able to reach the target. To stop the threat, eliminate the delivery system.
However, further complicating the issue is that part of the North’s missile development includes mobile Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that makes targeting the delivery system before launch that much more difficult. They have also tested submarine launched ballistic missiles, which are even harder to locate without sufficient warning and planning. So while the military option is and should be on the table, the practical aspects of eliminating the threat without a major conflict are daunting.
The ace in the hole held by North Korea is the fact that Seoul, the capital with a population in the city and suburbs of nearly 24 million, is only about 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The North amassed and maintains large numbers of artillery, rocket, and ballistic missiles along the DMZ, many with a range capable of reaching Seoul. This is a huge deterrent to unilateral U.S. or allied strikes. Additionally, North Korea already has operational ballistic missiles that can reach Japan, the Philippines, Guam and other locations with U.S. military bases and U.S ex-pats. There are other threats as well, but you get the picture.
The Korean War began in 1950, and technically never ended, although an Armistice was reached in 1953. The war resulted in approximately 2.7 million Korean deaths, with an additional 800,000 Chinese and 33,000 American dead. Since then Civil Defense capabilities in the South have vastly improved and the citizens practice taking shelter. Also new are the preemption plans of the United States and South Korean military that in the early stages of conflict would seek to take out the North’s ability to wreak wide-spread damage in the South. However, despite these plans and practices, the devastation of extended combat would be real and with a lasting impact.
The key to a non-military solution in North Korea is China. President Trump tried to impart to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the U.S. in April the importance we place on this issue and the need for Chinese influence to reign in the North Koreans. Presumably President Xi took the information on board, but China has their own interests on the peninsula. First and foremost, they do not want a united Korea, especially one allied with the United States. Secondly, they are unwilling to deal with the economic fallout of a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border should the regime of Kim Jong-un fall. Kim is the ruthless Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or as we call it, North Korea.
Most of us know of the ruthless leadership of Leader Kim, including having his uncle and half-brother killed. He does not appear to be “crazy” as some would have it, but he is isolated, inexperienced, and convinced of his infallibility. For a minute, take a look at the world from his point of view. Assume that he is committed to his personal and the regime’s survival. Assume also that he believes his own propaganda and that the world really is out to get him. Here is what he sees.
Kim knows well of the fate of two previous strongmen, Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Both had programs to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Both were pressured by world leaders, diplomatically and militarily, to give up their WMD programs. We now know that both actually did give them up. One ended up sexually violated and killed in the desert and the other was hung. Kim Jong-un is not about to fall prey, as he sees it, to the same trick. He will not willingly give up his nuclear and missile programs just because the U.S. threatens him or China cajoles him. Economic sanctions seem to hurt only the North Korean population, Kim and his cronies are immune from the deprivations that seriously impact his citizens. Rebellion from within is nearly impossible given the total control over the population wielded by the state and the total immersion into a way of life and a propaganda machine that influences the average citizens from the day that they are born.
During the Cold War, the superpowers possessed nuclear weapons and competed for influence and territory for many decades without nuclear war becoming a reality. There were many reasons for our survival despite some serious crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lesser known 1973 Arab-Israeli War when the U.S. military world-wide went to DEFCON III (Defense Condition 3), the two closest instances of direct conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Foremost among these reasons is the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly known as MAD) where the chance of total and equal destruction deterred each side from using their nuclear weapons. (Although in fact, most nuclear war plans did not contemplate an all or nothing use of nuclear weapons. There were (are?) war fighting plans using nuclear weapons in limited strikes that may or may not escalate based on the war aims. It also has to do with hitting counter-value or counter-force targets — in over simplified words, hitting cities or military forces. But I digress, although it useful to remember this concept of counter-value versus counter-force targeting in thinking about North Korea.)
It is unlikely that North Korea can be deterred from using its nuclear force based merely on the concept of MAD. Kim does not want to die, he wants to survive, but he will not go down without a fight. If his survival is threatened in a way he finds credible, he may go down swinging.
Diplomatically, it is difficult to know what will bring the North to the table with a credible negotiating team willing to provide a solution to inhibiting or eliminating their nuclear program. On-site inspections and verification must be part of any solution, but Kim has signaled he will never allow them to occur. Past U.S. administrations have entered into negotiations with them only to find them unserious and uninterested in a real solution. They were only interested in finding out how much they could get from the West before opting out of any reciprocal actions.
There may be some value in taking a similar approach to the one that the world took with Iran. While President Obama is often and furiously “blamed” for “caving” to the Iranians, a few things need to be remembered about the agreement. First, it was not a bilateral U.S.-Iran agreement. It was a multi-lateral agreement that includes, among others, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia. Second, it in fact did stop Iranian development of nuclear weapons, at least in the short run. The idea is that eventually Iran will benefit sufficiently economically without a nuclear weapons program that they will forgo it rather than suffer more sanctions in the future. Third, it did open the country to outside inspectors. No deal is credible without continued verification. The deal was a result of focused sanctions that hurt the Iranians where it counted.
Using this model may or may not be possible, but it could be a starting point for a meaningful international diplomatic effort to resolve the Kim issue. However, thus far other world leaders have been content to allow the U.S. and China to solve this problem as they are less threatened by the DPRK. China is the key to any solution, but particularly one involving meaningful sanctions. To be meaningful, they must hit Kim and his fellow oligarchs where it hurts — in their pocket books and life styles. So far there is no evidence that current sanctions are having any impact on the leadership, only on the population. Thus China (and others) need to meaningfully and consistently enforce economic sanctions.
For other world leaders that do not seem too concerned, they should consider what may be the biggest threat from the North Korean nuclear program. Cash strapped and looking for a market, it is conceivable that the DPRK will (and maybe already has) export their knowledge and expertise to the highest bidder. This may and probably will in the future include terrorist organizations and rogue states. That alone should be enough to get most of the world on board with solving this problem.
Finally, and, as it should be, a last resort, there are a number of military options that may preclude full-scale war. Cyber attacks that cripple the nuclear infrastructure for example could be carried out. (Remember reports in 2010 that the “Stuxnet” virus crippled the Iranian nuclear centrifuges in what is thought to be a combined U.S.-Israeli operation.) Other clandestine operations are surely in the U.S. playbook.
Should conventional military force be required, a counter-force strike aimed at limiting the DPRK’s ability to do damage in South Korea could be followed by an offer to negotiate with Kim.
Another option is to specifically target Kim and the senior leadership in a decapitation strike that removes the DPRK leadership and thus limits their ability to retaliate. This seems to have the biggest chance of success. If a pre-emptive U.S. military strike could lead to a massive conflict on the peninsula and surrounding areas anyway, then go for the leadership first in the chance that the command and control abilities and the will to fight may be eliminated before the conflict spirals out of control.
While the DPRK is increasing its capabilities, so are the U.S and our regional allies. While we may not be able to locate and eliminate all of the nuclear sites and mobile launchers on the ground, using increasingly sophisticated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems the U.S. can limit the impact of a strike by destroying the missiles in flight. Current systems include Ground Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) based in California and Alaska which tested well against ICBM targets, the Navy’s Aegis destroyers and cruisers have proven adept at hitting ballistic missiles and the Army’s Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems have as well, depending on the threat and the environment. You may recall that the U.S. is presently deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, although in April President Trump inexplicably called on the Koreans to pay us one billion dollars for the system unless they terminate or renegotiate a bilateral trade agreement — “a horrible deal.” For now, the deployment continues.
It does not take a crystal ball to determine that the Trump Administration will face its toughest international challenge in North Korea. Whether in the coming months, as the DPRK accelerates its testing of missile and weapon systems, or in the coming years, one should expect action in one form or another in the near future. It will take a confident and realistic combination of diplomatic and economic measures from the international community coupled with unparalleled military readiness. What is certain is that the problem will not go away on its own.