For virtually all of his seven years in office, President Obama has been able to put North Korea’s nuclear program on the back burner while he focused on Iran’s. That probably was the right priority. But during that time, North Korea has slowly, and consistently, become more — not less — of a threat.
Even if it didn’t really detonate a hydrogen bomb this week (and that’s the initial assessment by the U.S. government and a number of experts), it is aggressively working on its nuclear program. While its missiles have been wildly inaccurate, it also continues to develop technology that would allow it to target South Korea, Japan, U.S. forces in the Pacific — or the U.S. West Coast.
North Korea frustrated presidents Clinton and Bush, too. Obama has insisted it commit to ending its nuclear program before anything else happens. But his policy has plenty of doubters, as this piece illustrates. The next president will have to find a way to deal with a country that doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of the world. Its leaders don’t want to be part of the modern world or care about improving the quality of life for their people.
The approaches that work elsewhere haven’t worked here. But there are few alternatives: More pressure, up to and including the possibility of military action to degrade North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Or inducements to slow down its nuclear program, which would probably serve to strengthen the leadership and whet its appetite for more concessions.
For some time now, conventional wisdom has suggested that the road to Pyongyang goes through Beijing, North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner.
That was Donald Trump’s message on Wednesday.
Having a cozy relationship with North Korea is embarrassing — like having Pigpen as your best friend. Relations have noticeably cooled since Xi Jinping took over as Chinese president: Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un has not been invited to China.
China was angered by previous North Korean nuclear tests, and was very quick to condemn this one. But some analysts doubt whether China’s influence is as strong as it appears. The North Koreans appear not to have even told the Chinese they were going to conduct this test.
Even if they can, expecting the Chinese to do a lot more runs into some very tough questions of realpolitik. As much as they’re irritated by the young North Korean leader, it’s probably still better to have him there than not.
If North Korea suddenly collapsed, China would face a flood of refugees crossing the border and destabilizing the northeast part of the country.
China would suddenly face the prospect of a unified Korea under control of the Seoul government. At a time when China is expanding its influence east and south, and seeks to replace the U.S. as the main Pacific power, this would be a major reversal. China would find itself bordering a country that is a staunch U.S. military ally, where American troops still are stationed.
Finally, the status quo may be useful for China. It can use its ability to pressure the North Koreans as a bargaining chip to gain concessions from the United States on other issues.
China is angry enough that it probably will go along with tougher sanctions against North Korea. But so what? If, as it seems, Kim and the rest of the leadership only care about their own survival, more external pressure just feeds the isolation and paranoia they use to rally the population behind them. It provides a justification for even more strident actions.
Offering aid and other concessions would probably strengthen the leadership, as well, by marginally improving the economy. North Korea tends to do something provocative when it feels ignored. So dangling offers of assistance would reward bad behavior — and probably encourage another round of bad behavior to wrest even more concessions.
Either approach is a recipe for managing rather than solving the problem, essentially buying time and hoping North Korea becomes more reasonable. That might work, but it hasn’t so far.
What about military action, then?
As anyone who has followed the debate over a possible military strike in Iran is aware, completely destroying a country’s nuclear infrastructure is highly unlikely. Delivery vehicles might be more vulnerable.
Nearly 10 years ago, Ashton Carter and William J. Perry urged the Bush administration to conduct a surgical strike on a North Korean missile prior to test firing. Perry served as secretary of defense under President Clinton; Carter is currently Obama’s secretary of defense.
Carter and Perry argued then that even a failed test provided the North Koreans useful information, and that the cost of waiting would be far higher.
If the U.S. wanted to go that route, it would have to work hard to reassure the Chinese — or be prepared for a serious downturn in relations. It would have to make sure that the South Koreans and Japanese, who are far more likely to suffer the consequences, were on board.
All the same, it’s worth tucking this quote in the back of your mind. It’s from military analyst Thomas E. Ricks: “I would not be surprised if one of President Obama’s last acts in office were to launch a pre-emptive strike to degrade North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Hard to get the bombs, but easier to get launch mechanisms and the reprocessing facilities. The Pentagon plan back in 1994 was to use cruise missiles. I think we have better tools now.”