The Skeptics

Crisis Averted: How to Deter North Korea's Nuclear Objectives

Which leaves the United States and South Korea without options, other than to confront a growing North Korean nuclear threat. Once the DPRK develops a reasonably accurate intercontinental ballistic missile, the United States will have to recognize that it is risking Los Angeles, Seattle and perhaps much more to protect Seoul. America’s defense of the prosperous and populous South, which is well able to protect itself, will then endanger vital U.S. interests, e.g. national survival. At that point the alliance could dissolve.

Washington and Seoul must consider acknowledging the reality of the North’s nuclear status and seek a deal freezing the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programs. Accepting Pyongyang’s existing weapons would be far from ideal, but worse would be allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. The United States and allied states can manage a world in which North Korea has twenty nuclear weapons and limited delivery options. If the latter’s arsenal expands to, say, one hundred, along with the range of its missiles, and the North’s potential for harm will have grown exponentially.

Offering to freeze annual military exercises, previously suggested by the DPRK, is one option. Proposing negotiations over a peace treaty and phased withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the South is another. Halting North Korean missile and nuclear development is worth paying a significant price.

Along the way the allies should explore what Beijing would require to take a more active role, risking its relationship with the North by threatening tough sanctions to achieve denuclearization. Winning China’s support would intensify pressure on Pyongyang to negotiate. But the PRC’s backing won’t come free and will require serious negotiation, not endless complaining.

There are no good options in dealing with DPRK. War should be off the table. More sanctions are worth a try only if China is all in. If not, negotiations based on nuclear disarmament are a nonstarter. This suggests that the United States must set more modest objectives while looking toward a longer-term transformation of the North Korean state. Such an agenda might not make for pleasant conversation at the summit. But the sooner the allies face nuclear reality in Northeast Asia, the better.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and senior Chinese Communist Party official Liu Yunshan (R) wave during celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on October 12, 2015.