The Best Option for Containing North Korea

The Best Option for Containing North Korea
AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi
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North Korea recently launched its second successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Many experts believe Pyongyang’s missiles can already reach the West Coast of the United States, and perhaps even farther inland. There is understandable angst about the thought that leader Kim Jong Un might launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. homeland. Still, this is a risk we have known for more than a decade that we would probably someday face. We faced the exact threat from the former Soviet Union, a far greater foe, for more than 40 years during the Cold War, and have from China since the 1960s. It does not mean doomsday.

The number of nuclear warheads North Korea is believed to have ranges from as few as 10 to as many as 60, according to a recent estimate by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The U.S. intelligence community has moreover concluded that North Korea has successfully produced a warhead that can fit on its missiles. What North Korea has not yet pulled off is a flight test of such a warhead on an ICBM.

The only thing we know for certain is that North Korea has ballistic missile capability sufficient to reach Japan -- its test launches have landed missiles into the Sea of Japan. That barrier could be the result of technical limitations, or a deliberate choice by Pyongyang to demonstrate capability without pushing provocation beyond the envelope.

However, even if the DIA's estimate is right, it does not mean that Kim Jong Un will attack the United States just because the capability is there. Indeed, Pyongyang has had the capability to nuke Seoul for more than a decade but has not done it. So Kim’s motivation for his relentless pursuit of long-range nuclear capability may have more to do with his own survival than with any desire for military aggression. What do Iraq and Libya have in common? Both countries lacked nuclear weapons, and Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi were both on the receiving end of U.S.-imposed regime changes.

More important, the vastly superior U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a powerful deterrent. Kim would face annihilation if he were to launch a nuclear weapon against the United States. He would have to be suicidal to take that risk, and the evidence suggests that he is not. It is important to remember that deterrence worked when America and the Soviet Union had thousands of warheads pointed at each other, and that supposedly crazy or irrational leaders with nuclear weapons -- leaders such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong -- were successfully deterred.

There is good reason to believe that direct deterrence will work with North Korea too, which is the primary and overriding U.S. national security concern. As such, it also means that military action against North Korea is not an imperative for U.S. policymakers because the choice is not between a war on the Korean Peninsula that would be "highly deadly," "terrible", and "horrific," according to U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mike Miley, and "a nuclear weapon detonating in Los Angeles [that] would be [even more] terrible." We would certainly prefer otherwise, but the reality is that deterrence allows us to contain a nuclear North Korea.

Whether extended deterrence via a U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea and other East Asian countries will work, however, is unclear. Can we credibly persuade Pyongyang -- as well as convince the South Koreans -- that the United States is prepared to risk Los Angeles for Seoul? This is essentially the bargain of extended deterrence, but is that a price Americans are willing to pay?

Rather than a nuclear monopoly on the Korean Peninsula, we might have to consider the prospect of South Korea deciding that the best way to deter the North is with its own nuclear capability. The current situation between India and Pakistan provides some cautious evidence that such a regional nuclear balance may be possible.

A more robust deployment of missile defense in both South Korea and Japan may also be an option to consider. The Chinese have objected to the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries in South Korea, but given China's inability to curb Pyongyang’s ambitions, Chinese objections could be overridden by South Korea’s security needs.

Seoul should take primary responsibility for its own security rather than being wholly dependent on the United States. South Korea is the world's 11th largest economy, with a gross domestic product of $1.4 trillion -- more than 30 times larger than North Korea's $40 billion GDP, which is just slightly more than that of the state of Wyoming. And South Korea spends more than three times what the North spends on defense ($36 billion vs. $10 billion).

More important, a South Korea that defends itself would obviate the need for 28,500 U.S. troops to serve as a tripwire along the Korean border, and it would remove one of the main reasons North Korea has made the United States a target for its ICBMs.

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