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How Do You Solve a Problem Like North Korea?

America's "forgotten war" is anything but for the DPRK.

Pictures: KCNA/Reuters

Let’s start at the very beginning… the year is 1950, North Korea wages war against South Korea and a US-led coalition. Though an armistice establishing a ceasefire is signed in 1953, the war never officially ends. Conflict between North and South occurs periodically through to the present, an accessible overview of which is available courtesy of PRI’s The World. This enduring sense of conflict is fundamentally fused to today’s hot-button issue: North Korea’s nuclear program.

The spectre of renewed conflict with South Korea and its erstwhile ally, the United States, has driven North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The Kim regime, per Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, sees its nuclear program as a means of deterring the United States. To be sure, this isn’t a new revelation. North Korea’s animosity toward the United States is longstanding and its nuclear program is hardly new. North Korea’s first nuclear test, after all, occurred in 2006.

But 2017’s been a big year. North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb, providing more literal bang for their buck. They have performed twenty missile tests this year. The latest — conducted November 29, 2017 — demonstrated the country’s ability to strike targets throughout the United States.

The question of how the United States should respond to such advances remains open, with what NPR termed a “buffet of bad options” for the taking. And… they’re not really exaggerating.

The path currently taken by the international community — that of sanctions and swift disavowal — has neither deterred North Korea’s nuclear ambitions nor prevented the realization of those ambitions. Sure, the sanctions regime against North Korea has its issues. Yes, there are steps the United States and others can take to strengthen the effects of existing sanctions. But sanctions alone will not convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. That the Kim regime views nuclear weapons as a means of survival all but guarantees as much.

For much the same reason, the threat of military force dramatically epitomized by President Donald Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ comments has similarly failed to dampen North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The ‘military options’ earlier touted by the administration would, in all likelihood, lead to war in Asia. And some American politicians seem fine with this. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, brashly stated, “If we have to go to war to stop this, we will.”

The case for war is thus: a nuclear-armed North Korea poses an existential threat to the United States and our allies and, therefore, cannot be allowed to come into existence. The tiny problem with this case is that it already does exist. It has for years, and this year’s advances are but the latest in a long string of technical achievements. War at this point would, rather than prevent North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, increase the probability of their use against the United States or its allies.

So, sanctions haven’t prevented North Korea from attaining a nuclear capability and won’t convince the regime to give it up. The window for a preventative war has passed. What’s left? A whole lot, actually, once it is accepted that United States policy toward North Korea cannot be predicated solely upon the pipedream of denuclearization.

The United States has other aims in the region, the aversion of nuclear war — one would hope — being near the top of the priorities list. But, in all seriousness, these more limited aims are quite key to creating a safer and more secure world.

Achieving these aims will employ the full spectrum of capabilities the United States has at its disposal. Usually, such a claim is taken to mean that military options are on the table. With the Trump administration’s apparent preference for military force, however, it means that diplomatic and cooperative efforts must also be incorporated into US strategy.

The good news is, there’s already a tried and tested template for such a strategy: the policy of containment articulated by George Kennan at the onset of the Cold War. Kennan called for the United States to counter Soviet influence with “cautious, persistent pressure” to weaken the Communist regime without forcing military conflict. Today, there are certainly more levers with which the United States can influence North Korea, the first of which is encouraging complete implementation of existing sanctions. Still, there are concrete steps that the United States should also take to decrease the risk of nuclear war.

Such a strategy takes time, patience, and restraint. It won’t fulfill President Trump’s pledge to ‘take care of’ North Korea. But, when you’re dealing with a problem like North Korea, you don’t solve it. You just manage it the best you can.

And on a less serious note: this.

Cameron Trainer


Cameron Trainer is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is a graduate of the University of St Andrews, where he studied International Relations and Russian.


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