N. Korea raises mil­i­tary stakes

War could kill mil­lions, and sanc­tions have not swayed Py­ongyang

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MISSY RYAN missy.ryan@wash­post.com Carol Morello and Anne Gearan con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The lat­est mis­sile launch high­lights Wash­ing­ton’s poor op­tions.

Py­ongyang’s launch of a new, long-range mis­sile this week deep­ens a chief for­eign pol­icy dilemma for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, putting the threat of a North Korean nu­clear strike closer than ever be­fore with­out re­veal­ing ap­peal­ing solutions for Amer­i­can pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

The de­but of the in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Hwa­song-15 mis­sile, which an­a­lysts said may for the first time put the U.S. cap­i­tal within reach of a North Korean strike, was hailed by Py­ongyang as a mile­stone in leader Kim Jong Un’s quest to prove his coun­try’s nu­clear strike ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

While some of the launch’s tech­ni­cal as­pects re­main un­clear, in­clud­ing the mis­sile pay­load and its pre­cise range, the lat­est of more than 20 mis­sile tests this un­der­scores Py­ongyang’s de­fi­ance in the face of in­ten­si­fy­ing U.S. mil­i­tary and eco­nomic pres­sure.

The new ev­i­dence of the Kim regime’s grow­ing mil­i­tary might may al­ter the think­ing of se­nior Amer­i­can of­fi­cials, who have yet to see a cam­paign of eco­nomic pres­sure bear fruit. That in turn could cre­ate an open­ing for diplo­macy — or in­crease the risk of mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion, ex­perts said.

“It changes the per­cep­tion of time that pol­i­cy­mak­ers have to come up with a so­lu­tion,” said Pa­trick Cronin, a se­nior ad­viser at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity. “In a cri­sis, it makes peo­ple ask them­selves, ‘Should we take more risks?’ ”

Pres­i­dent Trump on Wed­nes­day vowed to tighten sanc­tions on Py­ongyang, promis­ing the North Korean threat would be “han­dled” in a way his pre­de­ces­sors had failed to do.

Speak­ing at a cam­paign-style rally in Mis­souri, Trump called the North Korean leader “Lit­tle Rocket Man” and a “sick puppy.”

But op­tions for im­me­di­ate to his North Korea strat­egy are scant, with the iso­lated na­tion’s econ­omy al­ready un­der heavy sanc­tions and U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion con­strained by re­gional al­lies’ fears of pun­ish­ing re­tal­i­a­tion.

Al­ready over the past year, the Pen­tagon has po­si­tioned new as­sets around North Korea and con­ducted re­peated shows of force.

While De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and other se­nior de­fense lead­ers have stressed the U.S. mil­i­tary’s readi­ness to use over­whelm­ing force against North Korea, they have also coun­seled re­straint when con­sid­er­ing a con­flict that would re­quire a ground in­va­sion and prob­a­bly claim thou­sands, if not mil­lions, of lives.

One area where the in­creas­ingly ur­gent threat to the U.S. main­land may re­sult in new mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity is in en­hanced U.S. mis­sile de­fenses.

Al­ready this fall, in a sign of grow­ing con­gres­sional concern, law­mak­ers ap­proved a sub­stan­tial in­crease in mis­sile de­fense fund­ing. The Pen­tagon is also adding new ground-based in­teryear cep­tors de­signed to keep the United States safe from mis­siles fired from East Asia.

“We’ve seen this train com­ing for the last 20 years, but now this train is ac­cel­er­at­ing,” said Tom Karako, a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. “What you’re go­ing to see is that mis­sile de­fense is no longer an ide­o­log­i­cal is­sue.”

Na­tional se­cu­rity ex­perts also ex­pect in­creased in­vest­ment in ef­forts to dis­rupt mis­sile launches be­fore they oc­cur, po­ten­tially us­ing cy­ber means.

Less clear is whether the lat­est demonstration of North Korean power can open new diplo­matic av­enues.

In a state­ment fol­low­ing Tues­day’s launch, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said that “diplo­matic op­tions re­main vi­able and open, for now.”

Some ex­perts sug­gest that an op­por­tu­nity might oc­cur early next spring, when South Korea hosts the Win­ter Olympics and Par­a­lympics. The games, sched­uled for Fe­bru­ary and March, are ex­pected to co­in­cide with an­nual mil­i­tary ex­er­cises that Seoul con­changes ducts with the United States.

If the United States were to de­lay those ex­er­cises, which North Korea has re­peat­edly con­demned, timed with an event sym­bol­iz­ing in­ter­na­tional ath­letic co­op­er­a­tion, it could set the stage for di­a­logue, Cronin said.

But U.S. de­mands that Py­ongyang agree to end­ing its nu­clear pro­gram be­fore the start of talks may scut­tle diplo­macy be­fore it gets go­ing.

“It’s hard to see where this ends, es­pe­cially when the U.S. pol­icy th­ese days is just fo­cused on con­tin­u­ing pres­sure and wait­ing [for North Korea] to be­have dif­fer­ently be­fore get­ting back to ne­go­ti­a­tions,” said Jenny Town, as­sis­tant direc­tor of the US-Korea In­sti­tute at Johns Hop­kins School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing U.S. of­fi­cials’ at­tempt to fos­ter a peace­ful way out is Trump him­self, who has pub­licly ques­tioned Tiller­son’s diplo­matic ef­forts and sug­gested that force may be the only so­lu­tion.

His com­ments have not only un­nerved Asian al­lies, but they may also have deep­ened North Korea’s skep­ti­cism about U.S. over­tures.

Se­nior of­fi­cials in Py­ongyang “have fully em­braced brinkman­ship to en­sure their sur­vival,” said Christo­pher Steinitz, an an­a­lyst of North Korean lead­er­ship at CNA, a non­profit re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion. “It’s very high-stakes, but they see it as less risky than the other op­tion, which is trust.”

The ef­fect of Trump’s un­pre­dictabil­ity is com­pounded by Kim’s will­ing­ness to test U.S. strate­gic pa­tience, as he bran­dishes his grow­ing mis­sile and nu­clear arse­nal. The com­bi­na­tion, na­tional se­cu­rity ex­perts warn, in­creases the risk of dis­as­trous mis­cal­cu­la­tion.

“This is where Trump be­comes a factor,” Cronin said. “The pres­i­dent wants a more de­ci­sive re­sponse than the main­stream mil­i­tary elite in our coun­try, and that could be trig­gered by a [North Korean] provo­ca­tion that’s a bit too provoca­tive.”

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