This article was originally published by The Hill.
North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 2006. It has conducted four further tests since then. It is thought to be planning another nuclear weapon test in the near future, to which Donald Trump has tweeted, “It won’t happen!”
North Korea has also tested missiles with a longer range and is thought to be working on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. It is thought that North Korea has produced the fissile materials for at least eight nuclear weapons, but is unable at this point to mount them on a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.
While at present it lacks the technological capacity to directly threaten the U.S., North Korea will likely achieve this capability at some point. Its current nuclear and substantial conventional arsenal threatens South Korea, Japan, and U.S. troops stationed in those countries.
How should the Trump administration react to these threats? There are two possibilities. The first would involve military action by the U.S. against North Korea. The second would involve diplomacy and negotiations.
An important step in analyzing the danger of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is to consider its purpose. Given the size of its arsenal, North Korea could certainly not expect to win a nuclear war against the far more powerful U.S. military forces. What it could reasonably expect its small nuclear arsenal to provide is a deterrent against a preemptive conventional or nuclear attack by the U.S.
Having observed the U.S. take down the Iraqi and Libyan regimes after persuading them both to give up their nuclear programs, North Korean leaders have reason for concern. Each of these cases led to the overthrow of the regime and the death of its leader.
What else do we know about North Korea? It has a strong military of some 1 million troops. It has been ruled by a dynasty since the end of World War II. Its current leader, Kim Jong-un, is in his thirties and is the grandson of the founder of the North Korean regime. Donald Trump has described the young leader as a “smart cookie.” We also know that North Korea is a very poor country with a very bad human rights record.
It can be reasonably concluded that North Korea does not intend aggressive war with its military and nuclear program, but it does threaten to use these forces to protect its regime and leadership from an attack by the U.S. or another country.
For the U.S. to initiate a preemptive military attack against North Korea would be wildly dangerous and could result in a war throughout Northeast Asia, with massive death and destruction not only in North Korea, but also in South Korea and Japan, including U.S. troops in the region. What roles China and Russia would play is uncertain.
Given the massive disadvantages of initiating a preemptive war, including the illegality and immorality of doing so, the U.S. should dial down its threatening rhetoric (“all options are on the table”) and behaviors (sending U.S. warships to the vicinity), and instead seek negotiations with the North Korean leadership on mutual security needs. In addition, as a poor country, there is much that North Korea needs for its people. Food and energy would be high on the list of bargaining chips the U.S. could offer, as well as negotiating an end to the Korean War rather than continuing with the truce set in place in 1953.
The U.S. should actively seek China’s help in getting North Korea to the negotiating table and in participating in the negotiations. Following the path of peace and diplomacy would demonstrate an important step toward maturity for the national leaders of North Korea and the United States.