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North Korea risk too high for military option

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4 days ago Robert S. Litwak

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North Korea’s impressive parade of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles last weekend occurred as the Trump administration asserted it was not ruling out any option to address this rising threat. With echoes of Cuba in October 1962, this slow-motion missile crisis will play out not in Robert F. Kennedy’s legendary Thirteen Days, but over the next two or three years.

North Korea crossed the nuclear threshold a decade ago when it conducted its first atomic test. The precipitant of the current crisis is that the Pyongyang regime is now on the brink of vastly expanding its small nuclear arsenal. Left on its trajectory, by 2020, North Korea could have a nuclear stockpile of 100 warheads that can be mounted on long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

The contrast between North Korea’s atomic arsenal (which could, incredibly, approach half the size of Britain’s) and its paltry economy (a gross domestic product of about $17 billion, comparable with Asheville, N.C.) is jarring. North Korea is essentially a failed state on the verge of a nuclear breakout. And this totalitarian state is run by a dynastic cult — the Kim family.

A North Korean ability to strike the U.S. homeland would be a game changer. Vice President Pence declared in South Korea on Monday that the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” was over — but he did not indicate what would follow.

Strategic patience had essentially resulted in acquiescence as North Korea built up its nuclear arsenal and made substantial progress in miniaturizing warheads and acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. In response, the United Nations and the United States have imposed still stricter sanctions on the Kim regime. But sanctions are not a strategy.

With North Korea perilously close to becoming a major nuclear power, America should pivot to serious diplomacy. Since the end of the Cold War, when the North Korean atomic challenge arose, U.S. hard-liners have eschewed diplomacy toward this “rogue state” because they view it as tantamount to appeasement.

The alternative to diplomacy — the much discussed military option “on the table” — has essentially been off the table because it runs the catastrophic risk of spiraling into a second (this time, nuclear) Korean war. No U.S. president could authorize even a “limited” strike on a missile site and discount this escalatory risk. When the United States can’t bomb and won’t negotiate, it is in fact acquiescing to a continued North Korean buildup. That unsatisfactory prospect reinforces the case for transactional diplomacy through coercive engagement to block North Korea’s current disastrous course.

Though a full rollback of North Korea’s atomic program is not a realistic goal, transactional diplomacy to freeze its capabilities at their current level might be attainable. This would make the best of a bad situation: When zero warheads is not an option on the table, an agreement capping North Korea at 20 nuclear weapons is better than an unconstrained program that hits 100 warheads by 2020. And a freeze would preclude the additional testing that North Korea still needs to master miniaturization and reliable long-range missiles.

Why should diplomacy succeed this time when it has failed in the past? New conditions that change China’s strategic calculus. Until now, Beijing has been lackadaisical in its enforcement of sanctions and has declared that Pyongyang was Washington’s problem. But a North Korea with a large atomic arsenal and ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. homeland would be a game changer. That's true not only for America but also for China, where risky consequences could include the possibility of South Korea and Japan reassessing their own non-nuclear intentions.

Transactional diplomacy would decouple the nuclear issue from regime change. It would create the conditions for success by identifying a point of near-term optimization among the parties.

A freeze would permit Pyongyang to retain a minimum deterrent and the Kim family regime. For Beijing, it would preserve a strategic buffer state and avert the adverse strategic consequences of a nuclear-armed North Korea. And for Washington, a near-term interim agreement freezing North Korean capabilities would prevent a breakout and be characterized as the first step toward long-term denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

This analytical option should be put to the diplomatic test. Otherwise, we are left with the bad options of bombing or acquiescing.

Robert S. Litwak is vice president for scholars and academic relations at the Wilson Center and director of International Security Studies. He is the author of Preventing North Korea's Nuclear Breakout.

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