Wednesday, July 5, 2017

North Korea, ICBM's and Lousy Policy Alternatives

The toughest thing for folks to accept is that there are often no good policy solutions to a key problem.  North Korea has been that problem for at least two decades.  With the new test where North Korea has proven it can build and launch successfully intercontinental ballistic missiles, there is now greater pressure to do something.

But what is that something and what are the risks?  This is where the Trump administration scares me the most.  Talk of regime change and denuclearization are seriously alarming (see this thread)..  Why has North Korea pursued nuclear weapons? For status, maybe.  Because it fears that outsiders want to change who rules?  Absolutely.  What use are nuclear weapons?  To deter attacks, of course.

Could the US launch a strike to disarm North Korea's limited missile force?  Maybe.  But that would not eliminate North Korea's ability to do much harm--via artillery and maybe even invasion of South Korea.  Whatever mistakes the US makes, South Korea will pay.  There are just too many artillery batteries too close to Seoul for the US to expect any conflict not to have potentially huge risks.
Even the most limited strike risks staggering casualties, because North Korea could retaliate with the thousands of artillery pieces it has positioned along its border with the South. Though the arsenal is of limited range and could be destroyed in days, the United States defense secretary, Jim Mattis, recently warned that if North Korea used it, it “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” NYT

And, of course, there is no guarantee that a first strike would eliminate North Korea's small nuclear capability, which would put Tokyo in play as well.  So, a first strike might risk hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of South Koreans and Japanese.

This puts us back into a familiar and uncomfortable reality--nuclear deterrence.  We are deterred from attacking North Korea, and North Korea, as long as it believes a first strike is not imminent, is deterred from attacking the US and its allies. But if it fears a first strike, it may launch first because it might fear the US could decapitate the regime and eliminate much of its arsenal.  This "use or lose" situation is very, very dangerous.  This makes talk of denuclearization and decapitation destabilizing.

I was called a coward last night on twitter by someone who thinks nuclear disarmament is the preferred option.  Is it cowardly to be realistic?  We are not going to get North Korea (or China or Russia or France or Israel or India or Pakistan or the US) to give up its nuclear arms. Believing otherwise, especially in the age of Trump, is foolish.  Also foolish is thinking that using force will produce a good outcome.  It sucks that we do not have good policy options, but this is nothing new.  For twenty years, the US has wanted to strike North Korea and has been deterred by the threats it poses to the neighbors.  For the entire cold war (and to this day), we have had to tolerate the reality of mutual assured destruction--that threatening each other is the worst policy option except for all of the others.  I'd love to find a way out, but I can't see one.

So, when it comes to North Korea, we must focus not on denuclearization but on deterrence and containment.  Unfortunately, the US is currently led by amateurs with no empathy, which means they have a hard time understanding how their signals will be received.  Which means I am scared.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you're correct in this assessment. To do nothing is frustrating and leaves one politically vulnerable but the past decade or two have demonstrated its value by showing us one undesirable, but not unforeseeable, outcome after another.

As far as disarmament it's hard to imagine a practical or workable framework for this process at this time. As a witness to the aforementioned twitter conversation, I can say that none was offered.