U.S. and South Korean policy toward North Korea is stuck in a rut. Current alliance policy, dubbed “strategic patience” on the U.S. side, amounts to a time-buying strategy. But during this time, North Korea is making strides in its nuclear and missile programs, while alliance defenses struggle to keep pace. The alliance posture toward North Korea seeks to buy more time, but time is on North Korea’s side; the status quo on the Korean Peninsula inches the alliance closer to a crisis.
There are many aspects of North Korea that get endlessly debated — how many nuclear weapons it has, when its next nuclear test will be, whether Kim Jong-un is firmly in control — but there are also areas of relative consensus. There’s widespread agreement that North Korea has a nuclear detonation capability today; three prior nuclear tests have proved that. Its inventory of nuclear devices is growing. The explosive yields of its nuclear detonations are increasing with each test. It’s making investments in diversified nuclear delivery vehicles (fixed facilities, the road-mobile KN-08, SLBMs). Its nuclear weapons capability is probably geographically dispersed. And as its nuclear program moves in this direction, its missile program is improving in range and accuracy. These are not necessarily all objective facts, but they are all points on which most Korea watchers agree.
These trends are a problem. If they continue uninterrupted, whether in five or 20 years, there’s going to be a great convergence — a point at which North Korea has nuclear armed missiles in the dozens, located in multiple parts of their country, and capable of firing from multiple types of weapons systems. There’s still no consensus about how North Korea sees its own nuclear arsenal, but at the point of great convergence, North Korea will have the ability to engage in nuclear warfighting; a prospect that think tanks like the Rand Corporation have considered but that the United States has no experience actually doing. If the United States was reluctant to commit “boots on the ground” to combat ISIS, it seems even less likely that it would be willing to hazard the risks of engaging in direct combat with a nuclear-armed adversary. A continuation of the status quo, then, inches us toward the unsavory options of either nuclear warfighting or restraining ourselves when faced with an adversary that possesses a nuclear arsenal.
Neither carrots nor sticks have dislodged North Korea from its current path. North Korea is heavily sanctioned unilaterally by both the United States and South Korea, and by UN Security Council resolutions. None of this has impacted North Korea’s foreign and defense policy in a desirable way, and in the 1990s the threat of sanctions even gave rise to the first nuclear crisis in 1993-94. Engagement has also been tried in various ways: directly with North Korean diplomats, broadly in the contexts of four-party and later six-party talks, and indirectly through so-called “Track III” initiatives involving non-government affiliated individuals on apolitical missions. Governmental engagement has occasionally helped freeze and even partially rollback North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in the past, but only fleetingly. Everything that has been tried to date has one way or another contributed to the problem as it stands today.
The status quo is such for a reason; options to remedy the situation require taking on undesirable risks. It may be possible to foment internal regime change or governmental collapse in North Korea, but the consequences are unpredictable and the risks high. The same can be said of preventive strikes on known and suspected nuclear facilities; how can we ever have sufficient confidence that we can successfully destroy 100 percent of North Korea’s stockpile? The United States and South Korea have shown interest in engaging in credible negotiations with North Korea if there were even a remote hope of it leading to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but North Korea has shown no interest in doing so. If these are our options, then it’s understandable that the status quo is what it is.
So what is to be done? If we ignore North Korea’s nuclear and missile progress and simply try to “wait them out,” the problem only gets worse with time. In the meantime, building up defenses — especially air and missile defense — seems a prudent course regardless of whether one prefers a hawkish or dovish path. This should put contemporary debates about THAAD in perspective. Contingency planning for limited war scenarios, something I’ve argued for previously, is also essential given the direction of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
But building up defenses and readiness in this way is at best a strategy of deterrence by denial. It doesn’t solve the problem; it makes us better able to live with it. Today we have the choice of taking a gamble with various forms of engagement and negotiation at one extreme or preventive strikes at the other extreme. At the point of great convergence, whenever that may be, neither of those options will be realistically available. Instead, we’ll be forced to come to terms with a North Korean nuclear state. Will we then circumscribe our own goals, shifting from a denuclearization to an arms control mandate with North Korea, or will we be prepared for limited conflicts instigated by a nuclear-armed adversary?