The size and nature of the DPRK arsenal remain uncertain but greatly multiply the dangers of any conflict on the peninsula. Citing a series of war games, the Center for the National Interest’s Harry Kazianis warned: “There was no question millions of people would die—it was just a question of how many.” And that number is likely to grow along with the North’s nuclear capabilities.
Four years ago, U.S. intelligence reportedly figured that the North possessed enough fissile material for sixty-five nuclear weapons. Another estimate was that the DPRK had enough fuel for between thirty and sixty weapons but had assembled only twenty to thirty. It was thought that Pyongyang produced enough additional material for about a dozen weapons annually.
DPRK missile developments also are proceeding apace. South Korea and northeast Asia are within easy range. North Korean missiles also can hit the United States, though whether they could accurately target sites in America is less certain. The North also has substantial chemical weapons stockpiles and a biological weapons program.
The future could be much worse. The RAND Corporation and Asan Institute reported earlier this year: “by 2027, North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons and several dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hundreds of theater missiles for delivering the nuclear weapons. The ROK and the United States are not prepared, and do not plan to be prepared, to deal with the coercive and warfighting leverage that these weapons would give North Korea.”
How many wars are U.S. policymakers prepared for at once? Much of the known world relies on America for its defense, even though most of these nations are industrialized, prosperous, and populous. When the federal government has run successive $3 trillion deficits and faces a seemingly endless future stream of billion-dollar deficits even after Covid-19 recedes, it cannot both meet domestic needs and maintain the rest of the world on a defense dole.
Rather like domestic politics, foreign relations will require the United States to finally set priorities. No longer can the Washington foreign policy establishment cater to everyone’s war whims, preparing to fight major conflicts in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East simultaneously.
The question, then, will be which regions and, within regions, which nations? Europe, filled with wealthy allies well able to afford to defend themselves against Russia and the Mideast, which is no longer that important to American security, are the most obvious commitments to reduce or end. Since the Obama administration, U.S. officials have been talking about pivoting to or rebalancing to Asia. The Biden administration should act on that principle.
However, European and Mideast interests will not give up their precedence without a political fight. That includes members of the venerable Blob, as the foreign policy establishment is known: Who wants to be stuck in a declining field with falling professional prospects? Indeed, Asian success is by no means certain. Taiwan is not a treaty ally and would be extraordinarily expensive to defend. South Korea enjoys enormous advantages over the North, and a nuclear South Korea might be a better alternative for America than a continued U.S. nuclear umbrella. There are strong arguments for Uncle Sam to drop these commitments as well.
Washington and Seoul continue to plan military operations, but the future will be different. Reality will force the United States to begin trimming military commitments. The question today is whether those in Asia—especially Korea—will survive.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including 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.