North Korea has a history of saving provocative acts for the Fourth of July weekend. This time, the fireworks are more concerning than ever. Kim Jong Un apparently has tested successfully an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). So what should the United States do the morning after?
North Korean engineers have worked a long time to master all the things an ICBM must do, and they clearly were eager to conduct a full-up test. Until recently, they had been using one-off launches to incrementally test individual technical aspects of the capability, refraining from testing the “full Monty.” Now, after dropping many hints that a full-up test was imminent, they finally pulled it off.
Is it time to panic? Decidedly not. The United States should not allow political pressure to “do something” to induce a foolhardy response that either yields to North Korean demands (and those of their patrons, Russia and China) or, worse, leads to out-of control escalation on the peninsula.
It is worth repeating what former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell and I have said previously: A policy based on getting North Korea to fully relinquish its nuclear program is fatally flawed, because the regime never will give up what it views as the only insurance policy for its survival. However, the regime will use a nuclear weapon only if its survival is threatened externally. So we are trapped in a stasis of sorts: the North Koreans will never abandon their program, yet they will never use it unless backed into a corner.
Moreover, it is foolish to expect China to pressure North Korea enough to willingly end its program. Even if provided enormous inducements, China will only provide lip service, and will not take actions that would destabilize the North and result in a flood of refugees and a democratic, U.S.-backed state on its border. Rather, China will pressure the United States to make its own concessions, such as ceasing exercises and reversing the deployment of the THAAD missile system, in exchange for a freeze on the North’s program. These actions must be non-starters.
Further, if past performance is precedent, negotiating a reversible freeze on the North’s program in exchange for irreversible concessions is a fool’s errand. Finally, using force to coerce the North probably would lead to the worst possible case: the use of a nuclear weapon on (or even off) the peninsula and possible conflict with China.
What Are U.S. Options?
So, whether the United States likes it or not, the real goal should be to prevent use or proliferation of nuclear weapons by North Korea, and let that pariah nation stew in its own juice.
This does not mean openly accepting North Korean nuclear capability. Indeed, the North’s program should never be recognized overtly, and North Korea should continue to pay a very heavy price for continuing it, if for no other reason than to discourage other nuclear aspirants, i.e., “You want to possess nuclear weapons instead of using good governance to ensure your regime survival? Well, here is what life will be like.”
To some, this policy is defeatist—after all, how can the United States possibly live with a nuclear-armed North Korea potentially capable of targeting this country and constraining its freedom of action? But recent history is littered with other administrations that, despite the best efforts of intelligent people, have failed to come up with a policy that will verifiably and irreversibly eliminate the program.
Fortunately, two of the three pillars of deterrence—namely, denying objectives and imposing costs—retain their efficacy in this situation, and the United States should employ them to their fullest extent.1 What does this mean?
Regarding denying objectives, the United States needs to take the following steps:
- Improve its ability to build combat power on the Korean Peninsula in the event of a crisis to bolster conventional deterrence against North Korean aggression. Under existing, mostly U.S.-based force posture, the people and equipment needed to quickly defeat a North Korean attack may not deploy fast enough to blunt a DPRK attack. Stationing more forces inside the Republic of Korea, however, is not the answer—for political reasons on both sides of the Pacific. The only practical answer is prepositioning more “really ready” equipment on the peninsula and ensuring U.S. forces can fall in on it rapidly. Absent a huge budget plus-up, this means trimming the Army’s desired increase in troops numbers to resource this prepositioned equipment and mobility. This will be hard to sell, because it is contrary to the Army’s “identity metric,” but it must be done.
- Continue to buttress its “right of launch” missile defense capability. The importance of the recent successful, fortuitously timed, first-ever real test of the ground-based interceptor against a truly representative North Korean ICBM threat cannot be overstated. Despite the cynics’ continued inclusion of developmental failures in the system’s overall success rate, this much-anticipated test should go a long way toward convincing the Kim regime that an ICBM attack will fail. Ongoing system improvements should be sustained, including those leading to fewer interceptors required per threat missile, better missile defense of Hawaii, and continued work with partners to improve regional missile defense.
- Redouble its efforts to hold ballistic missiles at risk “left of launch.” This is a daunting task, partly because North Korea reportedly has made the problem harder by adopting solid-fuel ballistic missile technology, which does not rely on a complex and vulnerable fueling cycle. Speculation has emerged in the media about using cyber methods to disrupt launches, which is certainly worth the effort if it is indeed being undertaken—but the United States should leave no other stone unturned. The imperatives of reliably and quickly finding a missile, making a decision rapidly, and destroying the missile before it can be launched are hard but not insurmountable problems. All it takes are creativity, resources, and practice to resolve. Fortunately, good people are working on concepts and technologies to address these problems.
Regarding imposing costs, every administration confronting this problem has made it clear that use of a nuclear weapon would evoke a proportional response that would mean the end of the North Korean regime. Recent signaling has included flights by nuclear-capable bombers and U.S. ICBM tests, including a successful Minuteman III launch, which, although it was previously scheduled, could not have been better timed. The United States should continue such signaling, including reinforcing to our regional allies our commitment to extended deterrence.
What Role Should the International Community Play?
It is less clear how to deter North Korean proliferation of nuclear capability to another nation. The international community needs to employ better methods of detection in all areas—including the flow of money, intellectual property, and end items—and institute effective measures to interdict all three. The international community should also speak with more clarity on the price of future proliferation, including additional economic and diplomatic suffocation for both the proliferators and the recipients of nuclear weapons capability.
The time for finger-pointing over what several previous administrations have or have not done is past. This is a wicked hard problem. Calmly strengthening the U.S. posture as outlined above is the way to manage the aftermath of the next stage of North Korea’s progress on its nuclear weapons program. It is far better to execute these steps than allow appeasement or, worse, an out-of-control escalation, fueled by unwarranted fear and populist rhetoric, that could lead to a disaster.
1. Because it is highly unlikely that an extensive trade relationship ever will emerge between the U.S. and North Korea, the third pillar of entanglement does not apply in this case.