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On the Brink with North Korea – Part 2

A strategy of deterrence offers the preferred prospect of North Korea collapsing on its own...
by Matt Christensen Read Profile arrow_right_alt
On the Brink with North Korea – Part 2

(Read Part 1 here.)

Events on the Korean Peninsula continue to ramp up this week as the United States and South Korea begin war games in both robust demonstration and legitimate preparation against North Korea, while the rest of the world ponders the possibility of a costly war. We’re at a crossroads, and the bombastic rhetoric by Kim Jong Un and President Trump will be counterweighted by delicate steps of foreign policy that could have sweeping consequences across the globe.


Beginning Monday, the U.S. and South Korea began a series of annual military drills dubbed Vigilant Ace. The Air Force said that a total of 230 planes will fly from eight locations across South Korea. The U.S. Seventh Air Force also flew a B-1B supersonic bomber over South Korea on Wednesday, coordinating the aerial exercise with Seoul.

While the U.S. claims that these remain standard drills, there’s no denying the unique effects of these particular drills amidst the growing tensions since North Korea launched its latest ICBM last week.

North Korea claimed the war games to be a “grave provocation” that could escalate matters “to the brink of nuclear war.”

National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, said on Saturday in an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier that North Korea represents the gravest threat to U.S. national security and that the possibility of war increases every day:

I think it’s increasing every day … It means we’re in a race. We’re in a race to be able to solve this problem … So it’s immensely important that we work together with all of our allies, partners, everyone internationally, to convince Kim Jong Un that the continued pursuit of these capabilities is a dead end for him and his regime.”

North Korea, South Korea, and the United States are all on the edge of launching preemptive strikes, which causes an extremely unstable situation. The unique devastation of nuclear weapons creates the alarmingly high risk of an accidental spark, such as a misperceived military exercise (akin to the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident). Washington’s options are limited at this point.


The United States has kicked the can of North Korean nuclear proliferation down the road, avoiding any potential conflict for over 25 years through weak-kneed policies of appeasement and lax sanctions. The goal of nonproliferation, however, is no longer ”“ that ship has sailed.

Washington provided every opportunity for Pyongyang to come to the table and negotiate a nuclear disarmament. As Stanton, Lee, and Klingner write in Foreign Affairs:

“The lesson to be learned from all these experiences is clear: yet another piece of paper will not resolve the United States’ differences with North Korea. After all, Pyongyang has already signed and then unilaterally withdrawn from two International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreements and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and violated an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, the 1994 Agreed Framework, a 2005 joint statement, and both the 2007 and the 2012 agreements.”

Not only has Pyongyang shown no genuine intention of compliance, they continue to upset the umbrella of Asian nonproliferation ”“ creating the prospect of a domino effect. As Reuters reported on Tuesday, Japan is preparing to acquire long-range missiles capable of striking Pyongyang along with an overhaul of their missile defense systems. And both South Korea and Japan are now considering the obtainment of their own nuclear weapons in response to Kim Jong-un.

Another high-risk concern is the willingness of North Korea to proliferate and share nuclear weapon technology with other regimes ”“ the worst of which would be Iran. As CIA Director Mike Pompeo states, “The North Koreans have a long history of being proliferators and sharing their knowledge, their technology, their capacities around the world … Iran would certainly be someone who would be willing to pay them for it.”

Nuclear proliferation is not an acceptable outcome for the United States. It would undermine the entire longstanding international effort at nonproliferation, as well as severely reduce the political and economic leverage that the U.S. holds in the region. The U.S. will need to consider the prospect of disrupting the rogue regime of Kim Jong-un, creating immediate instability and conflict, as opposed to the long-term ramifications of a stable, nuclear-capable North Korea.


While a large sector of North Korea lives in third-world conditions, the top brass have poured money and resources into the military infrastructure to ensure their survival and deterrence capabilities. After taking power in 2012, Kim Jong-un paid lip service to modernizing the North Korean economy, creating prosperity, and opening it up to the outside world. Instead, he followed the same path as his father, Kim Jong-il, perpetuating a ruthless totalitarian regime, and maintaining a closed economy that is artificially propped up by the Chinese.

The question posed to Washington is whether the experience of the Cold War can provide any precedent for how to deter nuclear fallout with Pyongyang. A nuclear war with North Korea would have mass casualties on both sides, let there be no doubt, and it would be the deadliest war this planet has experienced since WWII.

Nuclear weapons scholar Alex Wellerstein designed a tool, NUKEMAP, that utilizes Google Maps to help model the impact of nuclear weapon attacks. A single 100-kiloton detonation over the South Korean city of Busan, for example, would instantly kill 440,000 people. A similar attack over the city of San Francisco would kill 323,000. And those are just the immediate deaths, not accounting for the delayed effect of nuclear weapon blasts.

The real benefit of serious economic sanctions is that they can advance the collapse of a weak North Korean economy, which would ultimately drive regime change ”“ allowing for the prospect of a non-rogue North Korean leadership or even a unification of the North and South.

The problem remains that economic sanctions against North Korea have never truly been enforced, or at least not for long enough. Too often, the United States and other countries take a soft approach. North Korea continues to store most of its money in U.S. dollars, for instance, and the U.S. Treasury Department could end this practice at any point.

They actually did this for a brief time in the mid-2000s, as they targeted Banco Delta Asia, a Macao-based bank, blocking it from the dollar system for laundering dirty money for Pyongyang. This tough stance spread as a deterrent against other international banks doing the same. Even the state-owned Bank of China at the time blocked a request from its government to transfer funds from Banco Delta Asia to other accounts in Pyongyang.

There are several existing sanctions against North Korea already, both from the United Nations and Washington. In 2016, for example, Congress passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. And more recently, President Trump issued new sanctions through an executive order this past September that target any company or person doing business with North Korea by freezing their assets and/or cutting them off from the U.S. financial system.

A strategy of deterrence offers the preferred prospect of North Korea collapsing under the weight of its own retrograde economic policies without the risk of war. Like the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies could patiently wait for a North Korean collapse and face the opportunity of a new reformist regime that’s willing to open up to the outside world. But Washington needs to take a tough to ensure that China and other actors hold true on their end. Unfortunately, this is the last remaining option before the use of force and a massive loss of life.


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