North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the latest in a series of brazen provocations, desensitizes us to the truly significant.
While many will debate in the days ahead the details of the test , we are past asking what North Korea’s capabilities are. Instead we must focus on what can be done now to stop Pyongyang.
North Korea is not going to unilaterally disarm, and the US is not going to preemptively attack North Korea (and risk another Korean war) to force it to do so. Simply continuing past policies — applying more sanctions and beefing up military capabilities in the region — will almost certainly fail, but more ominously will likely result in three outcomes, all of them bad.
The first is an accidental war or military miscalculation, which would cause catastrophic casualties. With a standing army of more than one million and thousands of artillery guns in North Korea, hundreds of thousands of South Korean and US troops on the other side, all against a backdrop of heightened tensions, the Korean Peninsula is a tinderbox. A North Korean test missile that goes badly off course, an exchange of fire along the border that kills a soldier, or a collision of naval vessels in contested fishing grounds — all of which have happened in the recent past — could be the “black swan” that pushes everything over the edge. With this fifth test (and with expected improvements in the North’s long range missile capability), we can be certain of the US response — more solidarity with the South, more military assets (framed as defensive) and more sanctions. This in turn will set off another round of dangerous one-upmanship with a young Kim Jong Un about whom we know little.
The second outcome is weapons-grade plutonium or uranium secreted out of North Korea. Ironically, this could occur if international sanctions work too well. To date, each North Korean nuclear and rocket test is followed by ever tighter economic sanctions. North Korea’s savior has been China, which has been the weak link. Currently, this seems to be changing, with China now actually enforcing some sanctions. But if the North is pressed too hard or in the face of a military escalation spiraling out of control, there would be plenty of incentive for stressed elites or rogue elements to sell fissile material or arms to the highest bidder. More problematic would be an unexpected collapse of the Kim regime — by internal or external coup, which would raise the specter of “loose nukes.” In this situation, who controls that nuclear bomb material and is it secure? No one knows. And if fissile material were to find its way out of the North, there is little doubt that nuclear explosion somewhere else in the world would not be far off.
The third possibility is that Pyongyang increases its leverage by continuing its production of fissile material — now at a rate of about one bomb’s worth of material every ten weeks. This means the North becomes more heavily armed, with the capability to hit the US West Coast with a nuclear weapon. This outcome is more likely if Chinese enforcement of sanctions remains uneven and the status quo endures — in other words, it is this same-old-same-ol’ which has allowed North Korea since 2006 to conduct four nuclear weapons tests, multiple long-range missile tests and increase its nuclear weapons stash from one or two to about 15 to 20, with no end in sight. There’s one additional worry — a nuclear arms race in East Asia because the political pressure on South Korea, Japan, possibly Taiwan, and China to respond will be immense.
Understanding that our longer-term goal must be a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, our nearer-term objective should be to keep things from getting worse — in short determining if a verifiable freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activity, the first step, is even possible.
One critical challenge here will be to figure out what is Kim Jong Un’s bottom line and whether it is a “bridge too far” for us. Before re-engaging the North and to have a chance of success, the US, South Korea and Japan must also secure Chinese “buy-in.” And here is where American leadership is paramount. The US inclination to see North Korea as China’s problem is and has been a mistake. But American leadership is not simply doing what we can to make Chinese use harsher “sticks.” It entails more substantial US, South Korean and Japanese “carrots”– all to be deployed in a coordinated fashion. Most importantly, and as a precursor to forging an “all for one, one for all” approach, it requires getting all four countries to accommodate the others’ regional security needs, which will necessarily involve difficult questions about the Korean Peninsula’s future.
Putting the pieces together to get a North Korean freeze is a long shot and getting harder every day. But given that we could in the not too distant future be faced with the terrible choice of a North Korea with nuclear tipped missiles aimed at the US mainland or a devastating war to prevent this from happening, making sure we have explored every option now before having making that choice later is well-worth our effort.