Task Forces

28.12.2017.

North Korea and Diplomacy

Flashback: Try diplomacy first on North Korea, even though it probably won’t work The alternatives are living with a North Korea that poses a direct threat to the U.S. or attacking it knowing a large and costly war could ensue. ​ By Richard Haass

Every U.S. president since Bill Clinton has tried to slow or stop North Korea’s nuclear advance, mostly through economic sanctions and negotiations. It is clear that this policy, dubbed “strategic patience,” has failed. The recent test by North Korea of what appeared to be a long range ballistic missile settled the debate.

The isolated, highly militarized country ruled by the grandson of its first leader is months or at most two years away from being able to miniaturize nuclear bombs and place them on missiles with the range and accuracy to hit the United States in an attack that could potentially kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans.

The question is what we do next.

It comes down to three choices.  The first is to reluctantly accept what North Korea has accomplished. The United States could fall back in large part on deterrence. We could make clear to North Korea that any use of its weapons would meet a response that could be nuclear or, even if not, would bring about the end of North Korea as an independent country along with the end of its leadership. Missile defenses would also be deployed as something of an insurance policy if deterrence broke down.

The problem is that it is impossible to know if rationality (which is at the heart of deterrence) will prevail in a country that often defies rationality. Mutual assured destruction is no more appealing now than it was with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Moreover, missile systems cannot be counted on to work perfectly. Also arguing against this option is that other countries might follow the North Korean example. There is as well the possibility North Korea might be tempted to sell a weapon to a terrorist group. 

A second option would be to use military force to destroy a good part of North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal. One shortcoming is that no strike could be guaranteed to succeed, as many of these weapons are hidden and protected deep underground. An even bigger issue is that North Korea would likely retaliate against South Korea using its extensive conventional (non-nuclear) forces that include artillery, special operations troops and shorter-range missiles. Hundreds of thousands of people in the capital of Seoul would likely lose their lives in such a scenario; also at risk would be the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as well as the more than 100,000 American civilians living there. 

The United States is also committed to South Korea’s security, something that could require dispatching many more forces and military equipment. The first Korean War, triggered by a North Korean invasion of the South in 1950, ended up claiming millions of Korean lives over three years. More than 30,000 American soldiers were killed in a conflict that left the peninsula divided at the 38th parallel. Talk of surgical strikes or limited war is mostly talk. 

A third option would be to attempt to negotiate an outcome acceptable to the countries most involved:  the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States. North Korea would have to accept a freeze on production and testing of its nuclear weapons and missiles and agree to inspections that would confirm it was living up to its side of the bargain. In return, it might receive diplomatic recognition, partial relief from sanctions, and some reduction in the number or scale of U.S.-South Korean military exercises.  Such an accord would not solve the problem posed by North Korea (it would never agree to give up its nuclear and missile forces, which it sees as central to its survival) but negotiations could limit the threat.

Many are skeptical diplomacy could succeed given its checkered history. A big factor would be China’s willingness to use leverage it derives from the fact that North Korea’s economy is heavily dependent on Chinese support. China, however, is reluctant to apply too much pressure for fear it would lead to North Korea’s collapse — leaving China without the benefit of a buffer state on its border. Introducing ever tougher U.S. sanctions against China in an effort to persuade it to pressure North Korea is a risky strategy given the many ways the American economy depends on good relations with China. 

All of which is to say diplomacy may fail once more. This is not to argue against trying, as it would be important to show it has been explored before turning to alternatives. To be sure, the main alternatives — living with a North Korea that poses a direct threat to the United States or attacking it knowing a large and costly war could ensue — are each even more unattractive, if for different reasons. But this could well be the choice we will need to make, a reality that argues for at least exploring diplomacy first. 

Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of A World in Disarray. Follow him on Twitter: @RichardHaass