Friday, February 17, 2017

Keep Your Eye on North Korea

While everyone is focused on the Flynn story, it might be time instead to think through the real crisis this week: North Korea's test of a ballistic missile. The press reported that President Obama warned Trump that North Korea would be the most dangerous and challenging national security issues. He was right.
In the next four years, North Korea will likely develop the capability to hit the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. In response, countries in the region such as South Korea and Japan might well stop believing that the United States would come to their defense against North Korea. They might well develop nuclear weapons of their own. To say that this will destabilize a region that has had a restless peace for the last 60 years would be an understatement. And given the often bizarre nature of the North Korean regime, the notion that they could have the power to destroy an American city is intolerable.
There are not many good options available to the United States to stop this from happening. We could continue to ratchet up our already severe sanctions, but that has not seemed to work in the last twenty years. The North Korean government will let its people starve if that is the price of nuclear weapons development. Some pundits insist that North Korea is on the verge of collapse, and that we just need to ratchet up the pressure. Given that they have been saying this for years, I am deeply skeptical. (In addition, a failed state with nuclear weapons is not exactly a great outcome, is it?)
One option that we have not used is military force to take out North Korea's nuclear capabilities or even its leadership. The problem with this option is that Seoul and much of the population of South Korea is just 35 miles from the North Korean borders. While I am convinced that South Korea and the U.S. could decisively defeat North Korea in any military conflict, the price would likely be the destruction of Seoul of the death of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. And the conflict could quickly degenerate into a war involving Japan and China as well. Not surprisingly, the South Koreans are not huge fans of this option.
Like it or not, while we need to keep all of our options on the table (and perhaps ratchet up sanctions in the near term), the only viable solution may be a grand peace deal with North Korea (technically, we are still at War with North Korea--we only have an armistice, not a peace). This means direct talks with the North Koreans, and will inevitably require deep involvement by China. There is much to dislike about this option, and it may not work, but it seems like the least bad option we have right now.

The Council on Foreign Relations has published a very useful analysis of this issue here.  For a different point of view (suggesting that deterrence will make this less of an issue) read this National interest article.

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