You can kick the can down the road, but when Kim Jong Un announces, “we have reached the final stage in preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic rocket,” as he did last Sunday, you are reaching that road’s end.
Since the early 1990s, we offered North Korea every kind of inducement to get it to give up its nuclear program. Pyongyang extorted money, food, oil and commercial nuclear reactors. It was a swindle. North Korea was never going to give up its nukes because it sees them as the ultimate guarantee of regime survival.
North Korea believes nukes confer inviolability. Saddam Hussein was deposed before he could get them. Kim won’t let that happen to him.
So, they have advanced. If they can miniaturize their weapons to fit on the rocket’s top and control re-entry, they’ll be able to wipe out an American city.
What to do? The options are stark:
(1) Pre-emptive attack on its missile launching facilities. It is the option most likely to trigger a war. The North Koreans enjoy both conventional superiority and proximity: a vast army at the Demilitarized Zone only 30 miles from Seoul. Americans are not going to fight another land war in Asia.
(2) Shoot down the test ICBM, as advocated by The Wall Street Journal. Assuming we can. Democrats have tried to abort or slow down anti-missile defenses since Ronald Reagan proposed them in the early 1980s. But we should be able to intercept a single, relatively primitive ICBM of the sort North Korea might be capable of.
Though the shoot-down would occur nowhere near North Korea, it could provoke a military response. Which is why the new administration should clearly warn if such a test missile is launched, we will bring it down. That could be a powerful deterrent.
(3) Return tactical U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea. George H.W. Bush withdrew them in the Cold War’s waning days. Gorbachev’s Soviet Union responded in kind. A good idea generally, but not on the Korean Peninsula. Detested by North Korea, the weapons deterred any contemplated North Korean aggression. Which might make them a good bargaining chip.
(4) Economic leverage on China, upon which Pyongyang depends for its survival. Donald Trump seems to suggest using trade to pressure China to get North Korea to desist. But China has not shown a willingingness to yield a priceless strategic asset – a wholly dependent client state acting as a thorn and distraction to the U.S. in the Pacific Rim – due to economic pressure.
(5) Strategic leverage on China. We’ve begged China for decades to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. Beijing plays along with sanctions and offers occasional expressions of dismay. There’s one way to get its attention. Declare we would no longer oppose Japan acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
This radical step goes against our general nonproliferation policy. But the point is to halt proliferation to the infinitely more dangerous North Korea. China is the key. The Chinese have no worse nightmare than a nuclear Japan.
The main strategic challenge facing the United States is the rise of Russia, China and Iran, striving to expel U.S. influence from their regions. The Korean problem is relatively minor, a Cold War relic. North Korea should be a strategic afterthought. It would be if not for its nukes.
North Korea may be just an unexploded ordnance of a long-ago Cold War. But we cannot keep assuming it will never go off.