The Skeptics

The 1994 North Korea Crisis: Military Force a Bad Idea Then (and a Worse One Now)

Even without the prospect of a nuclear scenario, there are growing worries in East Asia that Washington may be serious about attacking North Korea. China, in particular, seems agitated about U.S. intentions. Beijing has cautioned both sides to exercise restraint, and Chinese officials have emphasized that no one would benefit from the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, there appears to have been an increase of troop movements in northeastern China, suggesting a hedging strategy in case Washington resorts to force. Among other problems, China has to worry about a massive flow of refugees from North Korea if a war occurs.

There is no easy solution to the problem that North Korea’s behavior poses. On other occasions, I have suggested that the United States incentivize China to become much more proactive to rein in its rogue ally. The incentives would have to be quite appealing for Beijing to incur the risks inherent in a more hardline strategy. In his summit meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Trump made an initial offer—diluting his protectionist trade demands. But far more concessions likely would be needed in the security and economic arenas.

Another option would be for the United States to engage in serious talks with Pyongyang, perhaps even to conclude a “grand bargain.” The latter would require Washington to offer a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War, gives diplomatic recognition to the North Korean government, allows for an exchange of ambassadors, ends annual military exercises with South Korean forces and lifts nearly all economic sanctions. In exchange, Pyongyang would have to relinquish its nuclear program and at least greatly limit its ballistic missile program.

Proposing such a bargain might end North Korea’s menacing behavior and give the regime a stake in maintaining the peace and stability of the East Asia region. Making that offer also would increase China’s incentive to get tough with Pyongyang if Kim’s regime spurned the offer. One of Beijing’s recurring complaints is that Washington refuses to negotiate seriously with North Korea.

It is entirely possible that such alternative policies might not work and that North Korea is hopelessly incorrigible. But almost anything is better than taking military action that could lead to a conflagration on the Korean Peninsula. The Clinton administration recognized the dangers and wisely backed away from the military option in 1994. The risks are at least as great today. One can only hope that President Trump acts as prudently as Clinton ultimately did.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author or coauthor of ten books on international affairs, including The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: Flickr/UNC-CFC-USFK