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No good choices: the US and North Korea’s nuclear program

Image credit: Elvert Barnes (Flickr: Creative Commons)

North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program is fast becoming an insoluble dilemma. The dimensions of the Korean problem have reached such complexity as to warrant White House briefing of the US Senate. Hand-wringing over the issue is widespread in the media and among policy circles.

This hand-wringing is probably justified. North Korea’s dogged pursuit of WMDs, coupled with its aggressive rhetoric, has led to a concomitant deterioration of North-South relations. Several months ago, Pyongyang tested a new ballistic missile system, causing it to splash down in the Sea of Japan. This move signals to the US, its allies and other regional powers that now, more than ever, North Korea can reach out and strike its adversaries. A recent parade in the North’s capital showcased the range of delivery systems the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has developed. Of particular note was the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). This platform, once perfected, will give the KPA a far more insidious and effective strike option.

These missiles represent one prong of a two-forked development that has Pyongyang’s adversaries worried. The other, longer-term development is the hermit kingdom’s nuclear ambitions, which no combination of sanctions, threats and cajoling from the international community have managed to curtail. Though the technology’s development cycle is far from complete, the notion of KPA submarines packed with nuclear missiles prowling East Asian waters—and further afield—is sobering.

There can be no doubt that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a significant threat to international peace and stability. It is important to note the country’s leadership is not as deranged as some popular media commentary suggests, and it is unlikely to unilaterally fling ballistic missiles at its adversaries without provocation. However, its ongoing acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, its flouting of international norms and its aggressive rhetoric contribute to a general deterioration of regional relations. Additionally, increasing tensions precipitate the chance of war between North and South. This conflict has the potential to draw in the US, China and Japan, and a world in which three of the world’s richest and most powerful countries go to war is a dark one indeed.

The world looks to the US to curtail or at least manage North Korea’s muscle-flexing, but the very real possibility exists that this may be a problem that Washington cannot solve. There are a range of options that are available to American decision-makers, but none possess optimal outcomes.

Firstly, Washington might choose to strike North Korea. There is a recent precedent for this: President Trump authorised a strike against the Assad regime in Syria following its deployment of chemical weapons, targeting the sites from where the weapons were deployed. It’s unlikely that Washington would pursue a similar strike option in North Korea, however—the likelihood of massive North Korean retaliation is too high, and any localised strike could quickly develop into a conflagration that would inflame the whole peninsula.

Secondly, Washington could also seek to deter North Korea through some combination of military posturing, sanctions and the threat of overwhelming force. This option is also very hollow, however. Prior efforts by the international community to use these tools have clearly failed. It seems odd that North Korea would back down now, especially given its indifference to years of pressure from the international community.

Thirdly, the US could also try to work closer with China to apply pressure on Pyongyang. Beijing is North Korea’s main economic and political benefactor. In many ways, it ensures the Kim regime’s continued survival and, logically, the North Korean government has significant incentive to heed its demands. There are signs that China is very frustrated with North Korea; nuclear proliferation and sabre-rattling make standing by their allies increasingly difficult, especially as Beijing pursues a claim to responsible global citizenship. But China is trapped in a dilemma. Should it apply too much pressure on Pyongyang, or be seen to work too closely with Washington, it runs the risk of alienating its neighbour. Working with China, therefore, is an uncertain option at best.

Finally, the US could do nothing. It could allow North Korea to develop its military capability, flex its muscles and continue to destabilise the region. Beyond Washington’s obvious loss of face, this option has one, very grave potential side-effect. A failure of US resolve has the potential to catalyse nuclear proliferation in East Asia. Japan and South Korea could procure nuclear arsenals of their own to counter Pyongyang’s, increasing the chance of strategic miscalculation and disaster.

It’s hard to determine what option President Trump will select from his strategic toolkit. So far, his administration has been characterised by bluster and unpredictability. Trump has demonstrated that he is capable of decisive action—striking Assad’s chemical weapons facilities. But he's also capable of vacillation on policy issues, particularly when it’s unpopular at home. It’s likely that Trump will continue in the vein of his predecessors: try and mitigate Pyongyang’s hostility with sanctions, military exercises and the nuclear umbrella that it extends to all its allies.

Whatever the US decides to do, it’s likely that the North Koreans will continue their program of nuclear acquisition. There’s too much at stake for the Kim regime to falter on the path to nuclear-power status. For decades, it has based its entire national mythos around the concept of juche, a creed blending both religion and military capacity, and elevating the Kim dynasty to quasi-divine status. Abandoning the program would be a potentially fatal mistake for Kim Jong-un. There is no lever which can alter this vital interest.

Rob Cullum is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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