Many “lousy op­tions” avail­able in N. Korea

United States pon­ders pos­si­ble moves in wake of lat­est test of long-range mis­siles

The Denver Post - - NEWS - sby Foster Klug

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA» A dic­ta­tor stands on the verge of pos­sess­ing nu­clear mis­siles that threaten U.S. shores. A wor­ried world pon­ders airstrikes and sanc­tions.

North Korea in 2017, right? It’s ac­tu­ally China in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Mao Ze­dong’s gov­ern­ment staged a se­ries of bold nu­clear and mis­sile tests. Out­siders even­tu­ally learned to live with China as an es­tab­lished nu­clear power, even look­ing to Beijing, so far fu­tilely, to per­suade the North to aban­don its nu­clear am­bi­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to North Korean pro­pa­ganda, the au­thor­i­tar­ian na­tion run by three gen­er­a­tions of the Kim fam­ily has been a nu­clear state for years. With five nu­clear tests of in­creas­ing power and the launch this past week of its first ICBM, ob­servers are be­gin­ning to rec­og­nize what is still tech­ni­cally a taboo in gov­ern­ment cir­cles: North Korea is ac­tu­ally back­ing that boast up.

Over the decades, the United States and its al­lies have tried, or se­ri­ously con­tem­plated, “sur­gi­cal” mil­i­tary strikes, sanc­tions, iso­la­tion, diplomacy and push­ing China to do more.

So far, noth­ing has worked in what aca­demics call “The Land of Lousy Op­tions.”

What fol­lows is an ex­am­i­na­tion of what might be done as North Korea bar­rels over the world’s nu­clear red line.


There’s lit­tle doubt that U.S. B-2 bombers, F-22 tac­ti­cal jet­fight­ers and a bar­rage of cruise mis­siles could take out North Korean nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties; elim­i­nat­ing scat­tered mis­sile and delivery sys­tems would be much harder.

But it’s what comes next that scares many.

North Korea has as­sem­bled along the bor­der a huge num­ber of ar­tillery sys­tems within strik­ing range of much of greater Seoul’s 25 million peo­ple. North Korean mis­siles can reach the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea and the 50,000 in Ja­pan.

Jonathan Pol­lack, an Asia spe­cial­ist at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion think tank, wrote this past week that pre-emp­tive mil­i­tary ac­tion sim­ply isn’t cred­i­ble be­cause it would “en­tail in­cal­cu­la­ble lev­els of de­struc­tion and loss of life in South Korea and Ja­pan, in­clud­ing to Amer­i­can cit­i­zens and mil­i­tary per­son­nel.”

An anal­y­sis last year by the pri­vate U.S. in­tel­li­gence firm Strat­for, how­ever, raised the ar­gu­ment that the “price paid” for a sur­gi­cal strike should be weighed with the “fu­ture po­ten­tial costs” of try­ing to rid the North of its nukes after it has a nu­clear strike ca­pa­bil­ity, or of Py­ongyang ac­tu­ally us­ing those weapons.

“Fol­low­ing this logic, there is a com­pelling case to be made that the cost of mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion right now is jus­ti­fied, purely con­sid­er­ing the al­ter­na­tives,” the anal­y­sis said. “Al­most any price would be ac­cept­able if it meant avoid­ing a nu­clear con­flict in the fu­ture. But the na­ture of pol­i­cy­mak­ing is such that lead­ers are judged by present costs and not by those that could oc­cur down the line.”


Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump latched onto this an­cient idea early on, and at first glance it seems promis­ing.

China is North Korea’s food and fuel life­line and its only ma­jor ally. Why not then push Beijing to use its pre­sumed lever­age to turn the screws on the North un­til Py­ongyang re­lin­quishes its nukes?

Trump ear­lier this year ap­peared to con­cede that his con­vic­tion that China had “tremen­dous power” over North Korea was flawed after a meet­ing with China’s leader. “After lis­ten­ing for 10 min­utes, I re­al­ized it’s not so easy,” Trump said.

The dif­fi­culty is partly be­cause regime col­lapse in Py­ongyang would prob­a­bly push mil­lions of des­per­ate North Korean refugees into China over their shared bor­der. China also is wary of a uni­fied Korea with a U.s.-friendly Seoul in charge.

Out­sourc­ing the prob­lem to China “pre­sumes that Beijing will act on Amer­ica’s be­half in ways that it seems wholly un­pre­pared to take at present,” Pol­lack wrote.

Jake Sul­li­van, a na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and Vic­tor Cha, an Asia spe­cial­ist in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­cently sug­gested a deal in which China would make pay­ments to Py­ongyang and of­fer se­cu­rity as­sur­ances in re­turn for North Korea nu­clear checks.

“China would be pay­ing not just for North Korean coal, but for North Korean com­pli­ance,” they wrote. U.N. of­fi­cials would mon­i­tor com­pli­ance.

“If North Korea cheated, China would not be re­ceiv­ing what it paid for. The log­i­cal thing would be for it to with­hold economic ben­e­fits un­til com­pli­ance re­sumed,” Sul­li­van and Cha wrote.


Each new North Korean long-range mis­sile or nu­clear test re­sults in what’s trum­peted as the tough­est sanc­tions to date at the U.N. — none of which have stopped North Korea’s march to nu­clear mas­tery. Sanc­tions ad­vo­cates say that past ef­forts have been ham­strung by China, which has long pro­tected its ally diplo­mat­i­cally.

There’s skep­ti­cism, how­ever, that out­side pressure can in­flu­ence a coun­try that has built a na­tional ethos on de­fy­ing such pressure.

“Does any­one ac­tu­ally think that with an­other round of sanc­tions the coun­try’s leader, Kim Jong Un, will sud­denly give up power and North Kore­ans will all be­come lib­eral democrats?” David Kang, a Korea spe­cial­ist at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, wrote re­cently.


Sit­ting down to talk with North Korea might seem the eas­i­est so­lu­tion with the big­gest po­ten­tial pay­off. But diplomacy has as rich a his­tory of fail­ure as sanc­tions.

A 1990s nu­clear freeze agree­ment fell apart after U.S. ac­cu­sa­tions of North Korean cheat­ing. Six-na­tion dis­ar­ma­ment talks through­out the 2000s fi­nally broke down in ac­ri­mony. A 2012 aid-for-dis­ar­ma­ment deal blew up days later when North Korea an­nounced a long-range rocket launch.

Last year, the then-top U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, James Clap­per, said that per­suad­ing North Korea to aban­don its nukes was “prob­a­bly a lost cause” and that the best that could be done was “some sort of a cap,” though he ac­knowl­edged that would take se­ri­ous con­ces­sions on the U.S. side.

The po­ten­tial price of a freeze wor­ries many.

Would Washington, for in­stance, agree to pull its troops out of South Korea or to end mil­i­tary drills with Seoul, po­ten­tially open­ing the path for the North to achieve its dream, by vi­o­lence if nec­es­sary, of a uni­fied Korea with Py­ongyang in charge?

“Even if North Korea agreed to a freeze, how long would we ex­pect it to main­tain it this time around?” David Straub, a for­mer U.S. gov­ern­ment spe­cial­ist on North Korea, wrote ear­lier this year. “Once promised, what more would the regime demand, backed by threats and black­mail, to keep a freeze?”

En­gage­ment pro­po­nents say a cap of the North’s weapons pro­gram could lead to a se­ri­ous drop in ten­sion, bet­ter ties and maybe even economic deals in the re­gion. Since early in his rule, Kim has said economic de­vel­op­ment is as high a na­tional pri­or­ity as its nu­clear weapons pro­gram.

“Rather than threaten war or deepen sanc­tions, a more pro­duc­tive path is to nudge Kim down the same road that the ma­jor coun­tries in East Asia have all taken: a shift from power to wealth,” John Delury, an Asia ex­pert at Yon­sei Univer­sity in Seoul, wrote ear­lier this year. “If Kim wants to be North Korea’s de­vel­op­men­tal dic­ta­tor, the United States’ best long-term strat­egy is to help him do so.”

As­so­ci­ated Press file

These pho­tos show North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on April 15 in Py­ongyang, North Korea, and U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in Washington on April 29.


Hwa­song-14 in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile.

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