North Korea: can we learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

North Korea: can we learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

Despite efforts to dissuade North Korea from its current path, the reclusive regime continues to pursue its military program with increasing intensity. Bernard F. W. Loo considers the options

On 3 September 2017, North Korea conducted its 6th nuclear test. This nuclear test comes hot on the heels of the 29 August test of a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile test, its 21st ballistic missile test conducted in 2017 thus far. One of the missile tests involved the allegedly inter-continental range ballistic missile, KN-14.

This represents a significant increase from the reclusive country’s 24 missile tests in 2016. The provocations have been only enhanced by talk from Pyongyang containing threats to the United States homeland and military facilities in the Pacific, the island of Guam in particular.

President Trump’s response has been bellicose. A military attack against North Korea’s nuclear facilities was always an open speculation. Recently, there has been talk of the possibility of a preventive war from policy circles in Washington, D.C. Apart from a preventive war to destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, there are at least another two plausible military options.

However, all three military options are seriously flawed.

Option 1: surgical strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities

This is the most feasible option, in terms of the material capabilities that the United States can realistically bring to bear. That the US possesses the material capacity to attack these North Korean facilities is surely beyond doubt.

However, this option will almost surely invite North Korea to retaliate in some form or other. A very likely form that retaliation could take includes conventional military attacks against Seoul, the political and economic heart of South Korea.

North Korea possesses long-range artillery and tactical missile systems that are placed along the demilitarised zone in locations close enough to bring at least the northern part of Seoul under devastating kinetic attack. Such an attack would destroy significant parts of Seoul, have a significant negative impact on Seoul’s political and economic power, and undoubtedly result in massive loss of life.

Clearly, this option is strategically problematic. Furthermore, it is also doubtful that China would acquiesce to such an option.

Option 2: large-scale preventive war, including attacking North Korea’s nuclear and conventional military facilities

Given the strategic problems of the first option, any military option must therefore surely include measures to ensure that such a North Korean retaliatory strike against Seoul will not happen. That is the only way by which Seoul will be willing to politically endorse this military option.

This military option is strategically unfeasible, however, for several reasons. A large-scale preventive war that includes the destruction of North Korea’s nuclear as well as conventional military capabilities will require a massive redeployment to the region of US military assets from around the world. And will consequently create gaps in its global military footprint.

Given ongoing uncertainties in Europe including Russia’s apparent resurgence, the US cannot afford to denude its already sparse military forces currently deployed there. Furthermore, the US has significant forces deployed elsewhere as part of its global counter-terrorism military effort.

The importance that the US places on its global counter-terrorism efforts means that it cannot be sacrificed, even if only temporarily, for any Northeast Asian exigency.

Beijing recently told Pyongyang that if it were to unilaterally attack US bases in Guam, it would be on its own

Furthermore, this option is politically unfeasible. While a surgical strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities just might find some support within some policy circles in Beijing, this option will almost certainly be rejected by the Chinese government.

It remains fundamental to China’s interest to have a buffer region in the Korean Peninsula that is at least neutral—if not outright friendly—to China’s regional geostrategic interests and concerns.

North Korea, as it is, fulfils that interest. Beijing recently told Pyongyang that if the latter were to unilaterally attack US bases in Guam, it would be on its own. This seems to suggest that if Pyongyang were indeed to launch a pre-emptive strike against US military bases in Guam, China would not object to the US conducting retaliatory strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear and/or military facilities.

Bridge of No Return that crosses from South Korea to North Korea at the Demarcation Line Photo: SPC 4 Long, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Except that such a retaliatory strike would likely result in a geostrategic situation on the Korean Peninsula that is inimical to China’s interests. The Chinese warning to Pyongyang was certainly a very stern warning to the latter to not cause any further destabilisation of the region, but it almost surely does not signify a China washing its hands of North Korea.

Option 3: ‘allow’ Japan and South Korea to acquire their own nuclear deterrence capabilities

This option appeals to the argument forwarded by the late Kenneth Waltz, who argued that horizontal nuclear proliferation may result in greater stability in regional and global security dynamics. This is also not a new scenario in Northeast Asia. Both Japan and South Korea have in the past flirted with the idea of their own nuclear weapons programs.

However, as Scott Sagan argued in rebuttal to Kenneth Waltz, there is no guarantee that horizontal nuclear proliferation will result in greater regional and international stability. A nuclear-capable Northeast Asia is not necessarily a positive development, and it is impossible to see how China would accept it.

Furthermore, the mere possession of nuclear weapons does not equate to a viable nuclear deterrence posture against otherwise hostile states. Given the short distances between these countries, nuclear weapons will create a ‘use them or lose them’ dynamic in these countries. It only makes pre-emptive nuclear strikes (and the very thing that nuclear deterrence presumably seeks to avoid) all the more likely.

Option 4: accepting and working around a North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile capability

To borrow from Stanley Kubrick’s great film from the Cold War era, Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, learning to accept North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs is the only feasible policy option.

Of course, there is more to this option that just acceptance; and it requires a few hurdles to be cleared in advance.

This option requires the clear and unambiguous communication from both Beijing and Washington, DC, to Pyongyang that while the US will accept North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, Pyongyang can never use them against US allies and interests in the Asia-Pacific region. For Pyongyang to do so would be to invite the inevitable destruction of North Korea—and this is a message that both China and the US will have to make absolutely clear to Pyongyang.

Anything less than absolute clarity invites Seoul and Tokyo to contemplate their own national nuclear weapons programs

The US also has to make absolutely clear to its regional allies and strategic partners the firmness of its resolve in maintaining its existing extended deterrence posture. Anything less than absolute clarity will invite Seoul and Tokyo to seriously contemplate their own national nuclear weapons programs.

Finally, the US has to bring its disparate policy communities within Congress to accept this option. And this might well be the most difficult hurdle to clear.

There will be vigorous debate within Washington policy circles, and it is likely that analogies to Munich and appeasement will be employed against this option. Nevertheless, given the significantly worse military options discussed earlier, this less-than-ideal option may be the only satisficing solution to the current impasse.

Featured image: Photo by Micha Brändli on Unsplash

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