North Korea’s Nuclear Threat Is America’s (Not the World’s) Problem
The first is to try to stop North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. That would be the best outcome, but there’s little reason to expect success. DPRK officials uniformly deny any willingness to trade away their weapons. That could be a negotiating tactic, but the increasingly frenetic pace of both missile and nuclear tests suggests the Kim regime’s determination to develop a workable deterrent while shortening its “window of vulnerability” until a survivable nuclear force is deployed.
The U.S. should pursue sanctions, but not only sanctions. Washington should lower the rhetorical temperature and downplay the threat of military action, which only confirms the Kim dynasty’s nuclear commitment. The U.S. should initiate dialogue without first receiving a North Korean commitment to disarm, which won’t be forthcoming. American officials should talk with their Chinese counterparts about a longer-term solution to the Korean imbroglio, and how to accommodate Beijing’s interests in return for applying greater pressure on its nominal ally. The People’s Republic of China wants neither a failed state nor a united Korea allied with America and hosting U.S. troops on its border.
At the same time Washington should remove the target from the American homeland. The raison d’etre for the U.S.-South Korean alliance long ago disappeared. The ROK has the resources to defend itself and should create whatever forces are necessary to deter a North Korean attack and win any war which might ensue.
Once the North possesses a deliverable nuclear weapon even a conventional Korean conflict would be too dangerous for U.S. involvement. If the DPRK found itself losing, it couldn’t count on Chinese intervention for its salvation, as in 1950. But Pyongyang could target the U.S. homeland. And Washington has no geopolitical interests in the Korean peninsula worth nuclear war. The security commitment should end and the troops should come home.
The U.S. also needs to rethink maintenance of a “nuclear umbrella” over the Republic of Korea. Could any American president justify risking Los Angeles and Seattle to protect Seoul? Popular support in South Korea for a countervailing nuclear weapon is on the rise. The possibility of a nuclear-armed ROK might encourage the DPRK to reconsider its refusal to negotiate. The prospect of a South Korean bomb, which could lead to Japanese development of nuclear weapons as well, would have a particularly powerful effect on China, providing even more reason to discourage Pyongyang from its present course.
The North’s latest missile test reminds us that the Korean crisis is worsening on an almost daily basis. Unfortunately, the solution remains one of second bests. Washington needs to make protecting the American people its priority. That means avoiding, not accelerating, a nuclear conflict in Northeast Asia.
Doug Bandow is the Senior Fellow and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.