The Case for Containing North Korea

South Korean soldiers stand guard at the truce village of Panmunjom

Before Washington experiences a fresh spasm of war fever on the Potomac, it’s imperative to examine just why a conflict with North Korea is inimical to America’s national interest.

November-December 2017

Kim starts this Second Korean War with an artillery strike on Seoul while firing hundreds of small- and medium-range missiles on targets all over northeast Asia. U.S. and allied forces counterattack, focusing mostly on Kim’s weapons of mass destruction, wiping out what they think is all of them.

Allied forces then move their way up the Korean Peninsula. But Kim, even with his forces battered and bloody, hid four nuclear weapons deep underground. He makes the ultimate decision: to launch a nuclear strike on Seoul and Tokyo. While the allies go on to win the war, Kim’s nuclear attacks—with one warhead each making it past allied missile defenses, detonating in each city—result in over one million people dead and millions more wounded.

From here it gets even worse. As though the above wasn’t bad enough, we pressed forward into a second scenario that begins with North Korea starting a conflict using nuclear weapons in a sort of atomic Pearl Harbor. In this exercise, we assume that U.S. forces are building up in the Asia-Pacific in preparation for a possible regime-change invasion of the North, responding to a demand from the international community for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. Sound familiar?

But Kim Jong-un is no fool. He knows that once U.S. forces are in place, they will try to take out his weapons of mass destruction, first from the air and then moving across the thirty-eighth parallel. Kim takes a gamble, and decides that his only course of action is to strike first with his most powerful of weapons. Kim, in what thankfully was just a war game, launches nuclear attacks on Seoul, Pusan, Incheon, Tokyo, Sendai and Nagoya, with one nuclear weapon hitting each city. Over two million people perish in the atomic fire before Kim is defeated.

The last war game, however, was the most shocking of them all. We assumed a similar scenario, with allied forces preparing for a possible invasion, but this time Kim decides to launch a preemptive attack on the U.S. homeland—to take as many people to the grave with him as possible, a goal the North Koreans have declared in the past. In this last war game, North Korea attacks the cities in the second scenario with atomic weapons, but also launches successful nuclear strikes on Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. We were shocked to discover that the combined body count, across Asia and America, came to over three million people—before America’s nuclear counterattack, which would add millions more. After North Korea retaliates with every weapon it has, launching more nuclear attacks along with chemical- and biological-weapons strikes, eight million people have lost their lives.

WHAT IS to be done? There are five potential pathways to mitigating the North Korea challenge. None involve a unilateral military strike; rather, they all embrace the idea that containing Pyongyang is our best and only option.

First, the Trump administration needs to be honest with itself and the problem it faces. There is no room for thinking we have more time to “stop” North Korea from getting nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, a line constantly repeated by experts across the political spectrum. The truth is that Pyongyang already has them.

Second, we need to embrace a financial-containment strategy—limiting the amount of illegal money going into Pyongyang’s atomic and missile programs—as the only way to slow and potentially halt any further advances of North Korea’s missile programs. We should insist that all nine UN Security Council resolutions are not only followed to the letter of international law, but strengthened every time North Korea tests another missile or nuclear weapon.

Third, U.S. and allied joint military capabilities in northeast Asia need to be significantly strengthened, considering the threat they face together. That means allied missile defenses need to be shored up in South Korea and Japan, as well as in the United States.

Fourth, whatever policies Washington pursues, it needs to take into consideration the interests of other great powers—especially China and Russia, two nations that have the power to block or negate any of America’s strategies either at the United Nations or around the globe. The United States must be frank with Moscow and Beijing that its intent is not regime change, but the containment and management of a situation that also impacts their vital national interests. Washington should welcome any realistic diplomatic proposals they could put forward to mitigate the risks of a nuclear North Korea—especially from China, considering the potential influence it wields over North Korea and the prospect of Beijing advancing dialogue with Pyongyang. Unfortunately, the dual-freeze proposal first advanced by China would lock in North Korea’s gains and require unreciprocated sacrifices from Washington and Seoul.

And lastly, while at the moment there is little possibility for direct U.S.-North Korea talks—Pyongyang currently holds three Americans captive, and has little incentive to negotiate before it feels fully confident in its nuclear arsenal—some sort of direct negotiation, even if all that comes of it is the establishment of a communication channel, would be of great help. The United States and Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War enjoyed direct communication through their embassies. Washington and Pyongyang, in the event of a crisis, have no rapid means to communicate their unfiltered intentions.