This article was originally published by Politico.
Once again North Korea befuddles.
On the cusp of receiving food aid from the United States as the quid pro quo for opening the Yongbong nuclear complex to international inspectors and a halt in missile testing, Pyongyang wasted little time to turn “progress” into a sink hole.
The rub: a three-stage North Korean rocket set to launch a small satellite into orbit in the next few days. The concern, the data gleaned from the launch will mature Pyonygang’s ambition to build an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten the United States with a nuclear warhead.
Maturation has been long in coming. North Korea first replicated the Soviet Scud rockets it acquired from Egypt decades ago, and has slowly developed a healthy inventory of short- and intermediate-range missiles. But the long-range rocket proved to be another matter. Its 2006 and 2009 launch attempts failed.
In anticipating each, Washington first pouted, but then returned to efforts to coax Pyongyang back to the six-party talks to can fulfill the North’s 2005 nuclear disarmament pledge. For a time, Kim Jong Il did return, but winked — attempting to pocket any benefits he could, while continuing to modernize his secret nuclear enrichment enterprise.
This has left Washington uncertain, as the new Kim prepares the missile launch. There are no perfect options. But there are at least four imperfect alternatives to deal with the North’s missile and nuclear programs, First, continue the policy of coaxing. Second, attempt further to isolate the regime. Third, use force to halt the most threatening nuclear elements. Or, fourth, accept what cannot be changed and learn to live with a nuclear armed North Korea.
Coaxing is business as usual. Trying to get Pyongyang to reliably say “uncle” and give up the bomb does not seem to be in the cards. The international community has tried and tried again since South Korea, Russia, China and Japan joined the United States and North Korea in the six-party talks in 2003. The approaching rocket launch, coupled with reports that Pyongyang may yet test another nuclear weapon, suggests that the new Kim intends to continue the path of the old to stay in power.
The second option might be called the Bolton approach. Former U.N. Amb. John Bolton has written many articles pressing for strict isolation of Pyongyang, to bring down the regime. He advocates detaching Pyongyang from “international financial markets, ramping up efforts to prevent trade in weapons…and pressuring China to adhere to existing UN sanctions resolutions.”
The major impediment is that Beijing refuses to go along — making the strategy a chimera.
Force marks a third option. Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, writing in The Washington Post and Time magazine in 2006, called on the Bush administration to initiate a submarine cruise missile strike to destroy Pyongyang’s long-range rockets on the launch pad. They argued, “the risk of inaction will prove far greater” for the United States — even at the risk of igniting a new Korean war.
Carter is now deputy secretary of defense. But there is no public talk that his proposal has any traction today in the Obama administration.
This leaves a fourth option — accepting what we can’t change while attempting to reduce nuclear risks. The stark fact remains that without regime change — which was key in the elimination of other nuclear arsenals, including the former Soviet republics and South Africa — North Korea will remain a nuclear armed state. Washington’s challenge is to assure that Pyongyang never uses the arsenal out of malice or fear.
North Korea’s use of its arsenal without provocation seems farfetched. More than anything, the leadership seeks to stay in power. It must know that any nuclear launch would result in the regime’s demise in the devastating U.S. and allied response that would be sure to follow.
Nonetheless, there remains the specter that North Korea could launch due to fear of preemption or as part of an escalating incident. Reducing these risks ought to be the priority.
This requires better communication between Washington and Pyongyang. At the very least, there should be a negotiated hot-line, replicating the Cold War link between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Better yet, full diplomatic relations could reduce the likelihood of major misunderstanding.
Neither a hot line nor diplomatic relations should be seen as reward to the North, but rather the realization that a nuclear Pyongyang is likely to be part of the northeast Asian landscape for the foreseeable future.
Assuming otherwise — without taking the necessary measures to reduce risk — could create is a far greater problem for the United States than either proceeding with the failed policies of the past or the impractical options advanced by some.
Bennett Ramberg served as a policy analyst in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration.