The Real North Korea Threat Isn't Nuclear War (It's Diplomatic Fallout)

North Korean military participate in the 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. REUTERS/KCNA

The more likely threat coming out of Pyongyang is not a nuclear attack, but its ability to sow discontent and division among its adversaries.

Shortly before his dismissal, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said regarding North Korea, “They got us.”

If that was not true then, it is certainly true after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s September 3 nuclear test, one that appears to have been the largest to date. If the North has indeed acquired a thermonuclear warhead (also known as a hydrogen, or H-bomb), then U.S. policy for the past quarter-century is unequivocally a failure, given the overall objective was to avoid such an outcome.

There also appears to be a growing consensus that North Korea’s advances in nuclear warfare and ballistic-missile technology has made it more capable of engaging in operations short of war or limited war. The insurance policy provided by the possession of the most powerful weapon known to mankind certainly makes it easier for a belligerent state to get away with bad behavior given that an adversary would think thrice about responding with force to any act of aggression or provocation.

The implication is that the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and Japan must prepare to be on the receiving end of a new spate of North Korean belligerence, which may include acts of violence in the region or abroad, be it of a conventional or unconventional nature. Unlike its enemies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) can play the provocation game all day long, since the existence of such a hostile, isolated regime possessing such destructive power is the very issue at stake.

So, what can the United States and its allies do? Will we have to continue being on the receiving end of cheap shots, or worse? Or should the United States and its allies prepare to return fire?

First, the United States and its allies must accept the DPRK as a nuclear power, if for no other reason than the fact it possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. How reliable these capabilities are is irrelevant. The possession of such an arsenal and the know-how necessary for development is enough to secure North Korea’s place in the world as a nuclear power. Only military action can disarm it, but the costs of war, which now ought to be common knowledge, will virtually guarantee force remains off the table as an option, regardless of how ambiguous Washington tries to seem.

Put simply, the Korean crisis is no longer something to be solved; it is a state of affairs to be managed. This is not something the Trump administration needs to acknowledge publicly, but it ought to do so privately.

Second, acts of violence short of war are nothing new for the DPRK. Since the end of the Korean War, the North has been responsible for a long list of incidents that have resulted in casualties—or worse—that have nearly prompted an all-out war. Limited war may in fact be a component of Pyongyang’s strategy towards the South and, by extension, the United States and its allies. Therefore, it would be imprudent to not prepare a counterstrategy against North Korea’s half-century-long campaign of unprovoked violence.

While Kim Jong-un may have “won” in the sense that he can now successfully deter foreign intervention, the United States and its allies are not totally helpless in the face of North Korean belligerence. In fact, the United States has options to eliminate specific threats posed by the DPRK. But it does not have many of them. In fact, what and where the United States uses force against is just as important as why.

For instance, an artillery bombardment, such as the 2010 attack on Yeonpyeongdo Island, would demand retaliation against artillery sites located on DPRK territory. The United States has not attacked North Korea proper since 1953, and such a retaliation would be viewed as a dramatic escalation of hostilities on the peninsula. Retaliation may be viewed differently if it was carried out by South Korea, which has borne the brunt of North Korea’s aggression in the post-war era. South Korea has retaliated upon occasion, and likely is not perceived by the North as presenting the same kind of existential threat the United States does. Even then, there exists ambiguity of what constitutes a reasonable, proportionate response that does not carry the risk of escalation. It is this very ambiguity that prevented the ROK from a major retaliation, such as when former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates convinced Seoul to call off a major strike on North Korean military positions.