With Py­ongyang on the brink of a nu­clear break­out, is the mil­i­tary re­ally an op­tion?

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Robert S. Lit­wak Robert S. Lit­wak, direc­tor of in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity stud­ies at the Wil­son Cen­ter, is the au­thor of Pre­vent­ing North Korea’s Nu­clear Break­out.

North Korea’s im­pres­sive pa­rade of nu­cle­arca­pable bal­lis­tic mis­siles last week­end oc­curred as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion as­serted it was not rul­ing out any op­tion to ad­dress this ris­ing threat. With echoes of Cuba in 1962, this slow- mo­tion mis­sile cri­sis will play out not in Robert F. Kennedy’s leg­endary Thir­teen

Days, but over the next two or three years.

North Korea crossed the nu­clear thresh­old a decade ago when it con­ducted its first atomic test. The pre­cip­i­tant of the cur­rent cri­sis is that the Py­ongyang regime is now on the brink of vastly ex­pand­ing its small nu­clear arse­nal. Left on its tra­jec­tory, by 2020, North Korea could have a nu­clear stock­pile of 100 war­heads that can be mounted on lon­grange bal­lis­tic mis­siles ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the United States.

The con­trast be­tween North Korea’s atomic arse­nal ( which could, in­cred­i­bly, ap­proach half the size of Bri­tain’s) and its pal­try econ­omy ( a gross do­mes­tic prod­uct of about $ 17 bil­lion, com­pa­ra­ble with Asheville, N. C.) is jar­ring. North Korea is es­sen­tially a failed state on the verge of a nu­clear break­out. And this to­tal­i­tar­ian state is run by a dy­nas­tic cult — the Kim fam­ily.

‘ STRATE­GIC PA­TIENCE’ Vice Pres­i­dent Pence de­clared in South Korea on Mon­day that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of “strate­gic pa­tience” was over — but he did not in­di­cate what would fol­low.

Strate­gic pa­tience had es­sen­tially re­sulted in ac­qui­es­cence as North Korea built up its nu­clear arse­nal and made sub­stan­tial progress in minia­tur­iz­ing war­heads and ac­quir­ing an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile ca­pa­bil­ity. In re­sponse, the United Na­tions and the United States have im­posed still stricter sanc­tions on the Kim regime. But sanc­tions are not a strat­egy.

With North Korea per­ilously close to be­com­ing a ma­jor nu­clear power, Amer­ica should pivot to se­ri­ous diplo­macy. Since the end of the Cold War, when the North Korean atomic chal­lenge arose, U. S. hard- lin­ers have es­chewed diplo­macy to­ward this “rogue state” be­cause they view it as tan­ta­mount to ap­pease­ment.

The al­ter­na­tive to diplo­macy — the much dis­cussed mil­i­tary op­tion “on the table” — has es­sen­tially been off the table be­cause it runs the cat­a­strophic risk of spi­ral­ing into a sec­ond ( this time, nu­clear) Korean war. No U. S. pres­i­dent could au­tho­rize even a “lim­ited” strike on a mis­sile site and dis­count this es­ca­la­tory risk. When the United States can’t bomb and won’t ne­go­ti­ate, it is in fact ac­qui­esc­ing to a con­tin­ued North Korean buildup. That prospect re­in­forces the case for trans­ac­tional diplo­macy through co­er­cive en­gage­ment.

Though a full roll­back of North Korea’s atomic pro­gram is not a re­al­is­tic goal, trans­ac­tional diplo­macy to freeze its ca­pa­bil­i­ties might be at­tain­able. When zero war­heads is not an op­tion, an agree­ment cap­ping North Korea at 20 nu­clear weapons is bet­ter than an un­con­strained pro­gram that hits 100 war­heads by 2020.

A freeze also would pre­clude the test­ing that North Korea still needs to master minia­tur­iza­tion and re­li­able long- range mis­siles.

CHINA’S CAL­CU­LUS Why should diplo­macy suc­ceed this time when it has failed in the past? New con­di­tions that change China’s strate­gic cal­cu­lus.

Un­til now, Beijing has been lack­adaisi­cal in its en­force­ment of sanc­tions and has de­clared that Py­ongyang was Wash­ing­ton’s prob­lem. But a North Korea with a large atomic arse­nal and bal­lis­tic mis­siles ca­pa­ble of strik­ing the U. S. homeland would be a game changer. That’s true not only for Amer­ica but also for China, where risky con­se­quences could in­clude the pos­si­bil­ity of South Korea and Ja­pan re­assess­ing their own non- nu­clear in­ten­tions.

Trans­ac­tional diplo­macy would de­cou­ple the nu­clear is­sue from regime change. It would cre­ate the con­di­tions for suc­cess by iden­ti­fy­ing a point of neart­erm op­ti­miza­tion among the par­ties.

A freeze would per­mit Py­ongyang to re­tain a min­i­mum de­ter­rent and the Kim fam­ily regime. For Beijing, it would pre­serve a strate­gic buf­fer state and avert the ad­verse strate­gic con­se­quences of a nu­clear- armed North Korea. And for Wash­ing­ton, a near- term in­terim agree­ment freez­ing North Korean ca­pa­bil­i­ties would pre­vent a break­out and be char­ac­ter­ized as the first step to­ward long- term de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula.

This an­a­lyt­i­cal op­tion should be put to the diplo­matic test. Oth­er­wise, we are left with the bad op­tions of bomb­ing or ac­qui­esc­ing.


Mil­i­tary ex­perts say what ap­pear to be North Korean in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles are pa­raded in Py­ongyang Satur­day.

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