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U.S. and North Korea: Very Few Options Remain

By  |  September 21, 2017, 05:30pm  |  @wpatrickf


President Trump gave a fantastic speech in the UN this week, and in particular was very strong in establishing our position regarding North Korea.

Just last week, the UN approved additional more severe sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom, but the U.S. did not get what they asked for. Instead they settled for what Ambassador Nikki Haley could squeeze out of China and Russia. What was eventually approved is fairly stringent and is having some effect on North Korea.

However, once sanctions begin to escalate, the timeline to military action by necessity gets shorter. If you’ve sanctioned everything you can, and have every agreeable country on board, then sanctions either work or they don’t. At that point, other options have to be explored.

It is doubtful China or Russia will ever agree to the any tougher sanctions, which means we are probably near the conclusion of the sanction phase of this problem. There are a few remaining non-sanction options prior to the military option, and they are very different and each present challenges.

First, let’s recap each country’s redline and desires:

  • China: The leaders in China would like to see an end to this mess. The red line for them is historic. What they can’t abide and won’t allow is South Korea, along with the U.S. occupying North Korea. Having the other global super-power sitting on their border is unfathomable. That’s easy to understand, we would go nuts if China’s military was sitting on the Mexico border, as a matter of fact, we didn’t much appreciate Russia being in Cuba.
  • North Korea: This is very simple. Kim Jong Un’s red line is giving up his nuclear program.
  • United States: The White House has made it very clear we will not allow an aggressive antagonizing foreign entity threatening us with an ICBM nuclear weapon pointed at our mainland. No long term scenario where Kim Jong Un has an nuclear ICBM and remains under these severe sanctions seems possible. It is generally accepted that once he gets his missile technology solved, its a whole new ball game. The President and his advisors are attempting to stop the pudgy dictator before he gets that far.
Those are the red lines. In a broad brush, here is what each want:

  • China: Being a paranoid and historically isolationist by nature, China wants nothing more than to see the U.S. get out of South Korea. Their long term goal is to dominate the region economically, and it’s proven they don’t mind being a regional bully. Having the U.S. in South Korea and Japan is a constant thorn in their side. They deplore the fact that the U.S. has long-range radar and intelligence capabilities so close to their border, and desperately want us gone.
  • North Korea: To Kim Jong Un, having nuclear weapons equates to security, however; having the U.S. parked across the border only heightens his paranoia. Kin Jong Un wants the U.S. gone, and he wants to be accepted on the world stage as a nuclear nation just like Pakistan.
  • United States: Our red line is North Korea possessing a fully developed ICBM capable of hitting the mainland U.S.
Two of the remaining options are:

More and more, thought is being given to accepting the fact that North Korea is a nuclear nation. One of the remaining options would be for China along with the U.S sitting down with both Korean nations and working through a peace treaty which would replace the existing truce. Under this scenario, the U.S. would agree to remove its military presence from South Korea. The thought is once we are gone from the region, Kim Jong Un will not longer be concerned with us. Its an out of sight, out of mind thing. He’s not muslim, he doesn’t consider us the Great Satan, he just basically wants us the hell off his border.

The other option would be to move Japan and South Korea into fully developed nuclear nations. Not just having U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil, but possessing a fully functional nuclear program of their own. Whether this would ever really be given serious consideration is unknown at this time.  How the world would look at this option given the existing non-proliferation treaties is questionable, however; the case could be made this option would be better than war.

How would this be effective? If Japan and South Korea were moving rapidly into a mature nuclear weapons capability, the threat to China would increase exponentially. Two countries on their border with nuclear weapons, along with missile defense and state of the art radar capability would undoubtable be unthinkable. If President Trump, along with both Japan and South Korea were to announce this agreement, it wouldn’t take China long to end North Korea’s nuclear threat.

The bottom line is China doesn’t really believe the U.S. will ever use military force. Given that fact, they have no real incentive to push North Korea over the edge or change status quo. If they realize Japan and South Korea have become the real threat, North Korea would not stand in their way to eliminate that threat. While a lot has been written about this option, the fact that it hasn’t happened yet, is probably a key indicator of the difficulties it presents.

I believe there is a growing consensus toward the first option, that of the U.S. leaving the region. Given the populist movement we are experiencing, and the devastating effects of war would have on South Korea, agreeing to leave that area might be the only prudent way to proceed. The arguments for this are very difficult to refute, it makes North Korea and China very happy, it reduces the existential nuclaer threat we now perceive, and it enables a long-term peace treaty between the nations.

Lastly, there is a very real danger in sanctioning Kim Jong Un so severely his nation begins to revolt. If his back were against the wall, there is a very  real possibility of him becoming extremely unreliable and unpredictable.  It wouldn’t seem to take much for Kim Jong Un then to lash out militarily toward South Korea and the U. S. This is not unimaginable if Kim Jong Un were to perceived he was out of options. Given that, it is not likely China would ever allow him to be pushed that far.

No stakeholder in this imbroglio desires the military option; however, having said that, sometimes events push nations towards war regardless of their desires. The U.S. must be sensitive to the timing of the sanctions phase and when it become necessary to quickly move past it into the next phase. Once that happens, few choices remain, but if done wisely, long term peace is possible.