7 July 2017

How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

By Shashank Joshi

This week, North Korea celebrated Independence Day with, in the words of King Jong-Un, a “gift for the American bastards”. For the first time, Kim’s country tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with sufficient range to reach Alaska and Hawaii – not to mention Scandinavia, Germany, and Australia.

While it’s unclear whether the regime can build small, rugged nuclear warheads that fit into the nosecones of these missiles, let there be no doubt: they will get to this point, sooner rather than later.

Kim Jong-Il conducted 16 missile tests in 17 years, but his son has managed over 70 in a mere six years – including more in this and last year than in all of North Korea’s previous history. There have also been four nuclear tests to date, with the last one – in September – roughly the size of the bomb dropped in Nagasaki.

Further tests will allow North Korea to refine thermonuclear weapons, which are orders of magnitude more powerful. And, roughly every two months, they can, in theory, add another bomb to their arsenal.

Like the slowly boiled frog, we have failed to notice the temperature of the water rising. It is now simmering and our position is perilous. North Korea’s new reach has profound implications for the credibility and integrity of US alliances, and by extension the post-war security order of Asia.

Protecting allies is never easy. Even in the decades after the Korean War, when North Korea had no ballistic missiles, any US intervention to defend South Korea probably would have cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans stationed there. Over the 1980s and 1990s, the price of intervention rose further as North Korea acquired ballistic missiles that could strike at Japan, where the US had 40-50,000 troops.

In recent years, that has become a nuclear threat, with North Korea openly practising strikes at US bases. But even in such disturbing scenarios – invasion or nuclear aggression – Pyongyang has had to take seriously the possibility that it would face nuclear retaliation from the United States.

In the ghoulish parlance of nuclear strategy, this is called extended deterrence – for the obvious reason that it involves extending your own nuclear umbrella over territory that isn’t your own. Successive presidents could do this in the knowledge that American soil could not be touched – but that is no longer the case. Once North Korea can target Los Angeles, Washington, or indeed Mar-a-Lago, the trade-off is transformed: is it worth risking several million Californians for a small country on the other side of the Pacific?

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve faced such a question. The continental United States enjoyed immunity from Soviet nuclear missiles for over a decade, until the USSR deployed ICBMs at the beginning of the 1960s. As General de Gaulle memorably asked, would the United States really trade New York for Paris?

If that question could be asked of a president who, a few months earlier, promised to “pay any price, bear any burden”, it’s not hard to see why the question – Trump Tower for Tokyo? – is far more urgent today. Particularly when you bear in mind that this president has repeatedly attacked ally after ally, while praising adversary after adversary.

In fact, America’s Asian allies fear both abandonment and entanglement. Their concern is not only that the US might not be reliable in the event of a North Korean attack, but also that this administration might decide to initiate a war now, while US cities remain safe – a scenario in which South Korea and Japan would pay the largest price.

Such tensions between allies are nothing new. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, once warned that European allies might come to see American bases as “lightning rods” rather than “umbrellas”. But that was an age of the Berlin Airlift and Marshall Plan; this is one of “America First”.

Concerned parties might respond in a number of ways. Why yoke yourself to an unreliable ally, who might also drag you into a premature war triggered by intemperate tweets? South Korea and Japan may be pushed into more independent policies. Last month, for instance, South Korea’s new president suspended parts of a US missile defence platform to placate China.

More seriously, allies may also judge that they need nuclear weapons of their own. This is no idle speculation. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all flirted with nuclear weapons programmes at one time or another. Trump himself raised this possibility no less than three times in last year’s election campaign, asking “wouldn’t you rather … have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?”

For North Korea has crossed the Rubicon. It is a nuclear state, and it will remain one. Military options now have limited use. A war to topple the regime would bring about exactly the circumstances – nuclear-tipped missiles against Japan and South Korea, and massive artillery bombardment of Seoul – that we’re trying to avoid in the first place, and could well escalate to a wider US-China war.

The US could attempt a more limited strike, to degrade North Korean missiles and launch sites, but this carries other problems. North Korea now has many mobile missiles that can be launched quickly and from a variety of bases around the country. The US could not eliminate all of these, but even if it tried to do so, such an effort could well be misinterpreted in Pyongyang as a prelude to a bigger war.

Economic coercion has also proved insufficient. China is unlikely to apply maximum pressure on Pyongyang, because it continues to believe that the risk of regime collapse, refugee flows, and a re-united Korea under a pro-US government outweighs the costs of a nuclear rogue state on its borders.

But there is undoubtedly room for smarter sanctions. As Andrea Berger concluded in a recent report, “not a single component of the UN sanctions regime against North Korea currently enjoys robust international implementation”. This regime will tighten further in the coming weeks and that is a good thing. But even if they bite much harder, sanctions alone won’t disarm North Korea.

We are left with two serious options: deterrence and diplomacy. Diplomacy would involve making unsavoury concessions to an odious regime that has flagrantly violated past agreements. The likeliest deals involve North Korea freezing nuclear and missile tests in exchange for promises that it won’t be attacked, economic aid, and possibly suspension of US-South Korean military exercises.

Whether or not we accept these trade-offs, deal or no deal, we will be living with a nuclear North Korea. This, however, is not the end of the world.

We have lived with nuclear-armed tyrants before, and largely succeeded in deterring them from unprompted invasions of allied countries. It requires us to accept that Kim Jong-Un is rational, concerned with the survival of his regime, rather than a suicidal maniac. It also requires constant vigilance, careful signalling, and a strong commitment of troops on the ground.

This is no easy task for an administration that has several clashing foreign policies at once, and appears to have replaced its State Department with a Twitter feed. But it’s preferable to the consequences of another war on the peninsula.

Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute