North Korea and the Terrorism List: The Need for a Strategy, Not an Irritant

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Washington, DC – The last thing the United States needs to do is to find more ways to irritate North Korea, rather than choose a strategy that can compel and/or persuade North Korea to change its behavior. So far, President Trump has been remarkably competent in finding new ways to insult Kim Jong Un, threaten him with undefined military options, and provoke new nuclear and missile tests. His latest gesture — putting North Korea back on the list of sponsors of terrorism — is another case in point. It is unclear it will do anything to halt North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, but it does grab headlines, and give Kim Jong Un a reason to reply in kind.

The problem is that two school yard bullies yelling across the playground is not a substitute for some form of coherent action. It will not make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons or halt any of its missile programs. It effectively escalates the situation without doing anything to resolve it. It has almost no military effect, and is almost certain to lead to some kind of hostile response.

What the US needs is some form of consistent strategy, and one that both puts real pressure on North Korea and gives it meaningful incentives to change its behavior. It is not clear that there is a good option for such a strategy, but the US must at least choose the best option available. President Trump has clearly tried one key approach: pressuring China to put real pressure on North Korea.

So far, however, China has done just enough to show that it has done something without really taking the kind of all out action that might force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. It is clear that President Xi Jinping is no fan of Kim Jong Un, but it is equally clear that he is not yet ready to do anything that might threaten North Korea’s status as a buffer state that both protects China and threatens South Korea and Japan.

While North Korea’s actions may increasingly confront China with a limited risk of war, they also give China a very real advantage in terms of leverage on the US, Japan, and South Korea. Bluster and token gestures seem remarkably unlikely to change these aspects of Chinese behavior. “Speaking stickly and carrying a big soft” rarely — if ever — works.

The key question is whether the US can put enough pressure on China to force it to do far more. This would almost certainly require far more US pressure on China, getting aid in terms of pressures and sanctions from allies like South Korea, and taking steps like threatening — or acting — to reintroduce US theater nuclear weapons to South Korea.

It means similar US action to encourage South Korea and Japan to develop their own longer-range missile forces, helping to create creating far stronger missile defenses in Japan and South Korea, and putting much broader US sanctions on Chinese and other foreign companies and their sources of financing that trade with North Korea. This kind of hard ball is a far cry from symbolism like putting North Korea on the sponsors of terrorism list. It also involves serious risks in terms of Chinese counter-moves and escalating an arms race in the Koreas and Northeast Asia.

Diplomacy, however, seems unlikely to do much better on its own. There is a real case for making North Korea credible offers of aid if it halts its nuclear and missile build-up. One thing the Trump Administration needs to learn in dealing with hostile powers like North Korea and Iran is that the use of “sticks” should always be accompanied by the offer of “carrots.”

A set of positive diplomatic options should be part of any serious US strategy, if only to show the US is willing to work with other states. In this case, such options will also make it clear that efforts at containment, military buildups, and denying North Korea military capabilities are not preludes to war or efforts at regime change. Moreover, putting a firm end to personal insults and angry tweets is both basic diplomacy and simple common sense. Matching Kim Jong Un’s self-destructive extremism simply puts the US on his level.

The grim reality, however, is that it may be too late to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. North Korea may already have come too far, and China may be too hard to push. If so, the only option may be a US strategy that accepts the reality of a growing North Korean nuclear and missile program and counters it directly.

If so, the first step will be to fully finance the kind of forward deployed US forces that the US Navy and Air Force are pressing for, and make it clear that the US will rebalance its forces to support Japan, South Korea, and its other Asian allies. “Asia on the cheap” is not an effective US military option for any aspect of the threats the US faces in Asia. Letting the US posture in Asia slowly weaken is precisely the option that will act as an incentive to Kim Jong Un, further empower China, and encourage distrust from South Korea, Japan, and our other allies.

The second step is to directly meet the North Korean missile and nuclear threat, which goes far beyond placing North Korea on a terrorism list. The US must do far more than simply threaten to reintroduce US nuclear weapons to South Korea. It must actually deploy such systems and make it clear that the US is ready to provide extended nuclear deterrence in the form of an immediate capability to retaliate.

The US must work with Japan and South Korea to give them combinations of stealth aircraft and cruise missiles that can offset any North Korean conventional missile build up, and ensure that North Korea cannot exploit any advantage in conventionally armed missiles or its forward deployed artillery without losing critical military and infrastructure targets throughout the country. Nuclear containment is not a gentle exercise, and involves serious risks. Failing to contain, however, involves even more risks and is the worse of two bad options.

Anthony H. Cordesman
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Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

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