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America's Grim Options on North Korea

More serious options

Is it possible to actually reverse North Korea's nuclear weapons status without going to war -- a feat which no previous policy has come close to accomplishing? In my opinion, yes, but it will not be easy. It will require tremendous nerve -- one might even say audacity -- and a willingness to bring our full national power to bear, in the clear awareness that these steps could trigger the most serious escalation in international tension since the Cuban missile crisis. No previous administration has been willing to go that far, for good reason. But remember: the alternative we now face is to watch helplessly as Pyongyang sets up a global bazaar for nuclear warheads, with total impunity.

These options basically fall into three groups. The first two are similar: they involve putting serious pressure on mainland China to intervene with Pyongyang. There is absolutely no question that this could work: China holds the balance of power on the peninsula, and the PRC is North Korea's only international patron. Of course, this would require Beijing to change its policy; to date, the CCP regime has determined that North Korea should be maintained as a useful buffer against a democratic, U.S.-allied South Korea on its border. I, and a significant number of Chinese foreign policy experts, believe this policy to be absurdly outdated and contrary to China's true national interest. After all, China's relations with Seoul are excellent; Pyongyang's recalcitrance has caused endless grief for the PRC, including diplomatic humiliation and holding back the development of China's northeast region; and most of all, China could use a North Korean collapse as a lever to pressure Seoul to remove American troops from the peninsula (i.e., say, "the price of our non-intervention is that the U.S. must leave").

Nevertheless, speaking as someone who reads fawning pro-North Korean articles in the Chinese state media on an almost daily basis, it has become quite clear that Beijing will never cease to act as the North's chief shield and enabler unless it is made to pay a high price for doing so. Of course, putting pressure on the PRC has always been a difficult task, and never more so than now when the PRC is a superpower. But doing so is not impossible. There are two main ways. Both are high-risk, provocative moves with many obvious counter-arguments against them; but as I said, time has run out on the easy options.

Finally, before discussing specific measures, one must dispense with Beijing's occasional protestation that it is helpless to change North Korean behavior. This is totally false, and it is time to stop apologizing for the PRC's Korean policy, which has been consistently disastrous in its real-world effects ever since Communist China was founded. China is not only the DPRK's only military ally, but practically its only remaining commercial partner. Chinese trade and investment has been crucial in keeping the Kim system alive, especially since the conservative Lee Myung-Bak administration came into power in the ROK.

Most importantly, the PRC, unlike the U.S., has a diplomatic option with North Korea that is so powerful that it could virtually resolve the situation with a single phone call, as I suggested several years ago. Namely, Beijing could threaten to publicly abrogate its alliance with North Korea, placing the DPRK totally at the mercy of the U.S., ROK, and Japan. Many would argue that China could never publicly abandon an ally in this way. On the contrary -- the PRC, the most realpolitik regime in the modern world, has abandoned allies so many times that this is practically a standard practice for them: Mao snubbed the USSR to meet Nixon; Deng Xiaoping decided to do business with South Korea despite Kim Il-Sung's frantic requests to desist; Jiang Xemin abandoned Albania to support the Serbs during the Kosovo war; and Hu Jintao has displayed a notable lack of grief for the departed Saddam Hussein regime, as Chinese energy companies poured into Iraq in recent years. Indeed, so strong are the PRC's pragmatic tendencies that, although this possibility rarely occurs to Americans, one can plausibly argue that North Korea developed nuclear weapons primarily because it feared being abandoned by China, not because it feared a unilateral attack by the U.S.

Serious Option 1: Economic Sanctions on the PRC

The first basic option for putting serious, no-more-Mr. Nice Guy pressure on China is to threaten economic sanctions, such as: crippling tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S.; an asset freeze; travel ban; etc. Now, anyone reading this can immediately think of at least ten reasons why such steps would be a terrible idea. So can I; believe me, as a business journalist covering China, I can see you those 10 reasons and raise you at least 20 more. But the fact remains, the PRC needs its $300 billion-plus in annual exports to the U.S. (around 6% of China's economy) a heck of a lot more than the U.S. needs its around $70 billion in exports to China (about 0.5% of the U.S. economy). Years of hand-wringing articles about our trade deficit with China may have conditioned Americans to believe that our pathetic inadequacy as an exporter is an entirely bad thing, but in this context -- using a trade cutoff as a threat -- it's actually beneficial, because it means that we have much less to lose from a breakdown in trade than China does.

Another destructive side effect of perspective-challenged journalism on China is that most Americans' perception of the power discrepancy between the two countries is fundamentally opposite to what it actually is. Not only is the U.S. economy still three times larger than China's, but the average American is far better cushioned against economic adversity than the average Chinese; 230 years of fairly steady economic growth have seen to that. Moreover, the U.S. economy is largely based on indigenous innovation, whereas China's is based on the deployment of foreign technology -- the supply of which would, at the very least, be drastically reduced by a serious economic dustup with the U.S.

Militarily, China is many years away from being in a position to take on the U.S., not least in nuclear arms. A nuclear arms race with America would cripple China financially. Beijing knows this, which is why its nuclear missiles function only as a deterrent force; if a nuclear exchange did take place at current warhead levels, the U.S. would be terribly bloodied, but China would cease to exist as a modern nation within hours of a nuclear attack on the U.S.

Another aspect of Chinese vulnerability is, as strange as this assertion may sound to American ears, political: Americans typically overestimate the CCP's political strength. U.S. administrations renew their mandate every four years; over the long term -- if not always in the short term -- this is a tremendous source of strength and stability for the U.S. But mainland China has never had a legitimately elected government (though Taiwan has). This means that the PRC regime depends on a limited set of options to maintain its popularity, which is constantly drained away by the gross corruption that is an ineradicable structural feature of China's current political system. The most important of these tools is continued economic growth. Beijing is already facing spiraling discontent in the form of public demonstrations; any serious breakdown in economic relations with the U.S. would almost certainly trigger a depression which could quite possibly lead to the end of the CCP's monopoly on power.

Serious Option 2: Permit Our Allies to Go Nuclear

Second, the U.S. could to threaten to allow its major allies in the region to match Pyongyang’s procurement of nuclear weapons. This is something that, to date, the U.S. has always actively prevented; for example, in the mid-1970s, the U.S. pressured South Korea to abandon its own nuclear weapons program (Park Chung-Hee was feeling insecure after the U.S. pullout from Vietnam). North Korea, in its folly, has furnished the U.S. with the perfect political cover for this policy: it is absurd for the U.S. to accept a situation where China's ally has nukes, but America's allies don't -- we have every moral right to insist on parity.

Also, because the U.S. has three major allies in northeast Asia -- South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan -- this policy offers the advantage of having a built-in ratchet where the aggressiveness, risk, and likely effectiveness in influencing Beijing to change its policy increases with each step. The least confrontational version would involve threatening to place nuclear weapons under Seoul's control, something that would be practically impossible for the PRC to oppose under the current circumstances. This version is relatively low-risk because following through on the threat would do little to increase the risk of war (the two nuclear-armed Koreas would deter each other); however, at the same time, it would be highly detrimental to China's strategic position. For example, the prospect of entering any renewed conflict on Pyongyang's side would become dramatically more risky for Beijing if Seoul, in addition to the U.S., possessed nuclear arms.

A further escalation would be to accede to Japanese nuclear weapons status; Japan would hardly require assistance in this regard -- everyone in Asia knows that Japan could go nuclear on its own within a matter of one to two years at most. Also, it is probably unrealistic to equip Seoul with nukes and not Japan, for two reasons: first, Japan would greatly resent the diminished status that this disparity would imply; and second, given that North Korea's war plan (according to the late defector Hwang Jeong-Yop) involves a threat to nuke Japan, the Japanese have every right to deter Pyongyang by themselves, irrespective of U.S. policy.

The last stage in this three-step ratchet would be the riskiest and most aggressive, but also absolutely guaranteed to get China's attention, to put it mildly. This would be to raise the possibility of nuclear weapons in the hands of Taiwan. For the CCP regime, a nuclear Taiwan would be a bona fide foreign policy catastrophe, and Beijing will become apoplectic if this is even suggested.

Nevertheless, the truth is that being cornered in this manner is exactly what the CCP deserves. It has propped up the Kims and winked at North Korea's nuclear activities for decades; now that matters have deteriorated to the point where the core national interests of the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are imperiled, the time has come for Beijing to start feeling the heat as well. Ultimately, China must choose: does it want to reduce itself to the status of Kim Jong-Il's guard dog, even at the cost of wrecking its economy and losing Taiwan forever; or does it want to join the mainstream of world civilization -- a civilization it will certainly earn tremendous gratitude from by acting constructively (for once) to deal with the threat posed by the Kim regime?

Serious Option 3: Military Action

The third major option, of course, is military strikes. Many levels of action are possible, ranging from air strikes to destroy the North's nuclear facilities (the location of which is so well known that millions of Americans have seen them on Google Earth), up to and including an all-out war to finish off the Kim regime once and for all. Contrary to popular belief, there are also various intermediate military options. For example, the U.S. and its allies could introduce a naval blockade; conduct a limited "message-sending" land campaign that might occupy an offshore island; or, more aggressively, retake the city of Kaesong (which is just a few miles north of the DMZ, and is actually South Korean territory because it is south of the 38th parallel). The allies could also, in fairly short order, conquer a "security belt" north of Seoul, to alleviate the artillery threat.

Of course, war is horrific to contemplate: it has become almost traditional in the English-language press to use the word "unthinkable" to describe a breakout of full-scale hostilities on the peninsula. There are good reasons for this: northeast Asia is not some third-world backwater; it is one of the most developed and economically crucial parts of the world (save the North Korea-shaped void in its center), densely populated, and crammed with modern industrial infrastructure, including the Seoul, Pusan, Tokyo, Osaka, Tianjin, and Beijing metropolitan areas.

Most writers assume that any military action will quickly escalate into all-out war. It might; but then again, it might not. The Kims are totally amoral, but they are also totally corrupt, and not stupid. Kim Jong-Il knows full well that actually using his nuclear force will mean the end of his regime and quite possibly the death of himself and his entire family. Suppose the U.S. and ROK unexpectedly mount a snap land offensive to secure the artillery belt north of Seoul, along with air strikes against the nuclear infrastructure, while publicly announcing that the objectives are limited. The North will certainly resist conventionally -- something the U.S. can easily deal with -- but will it actually nuke Seoul? I find this doubtful. And even if such an attack was ordered, how would the weapon be delivered, with ballistic missile launch sites destroyed in the first few minutes of hostilities, and allied airpower roaming the skies at will?

In war, when you are winning, you can use that fact to extract concessions from the enemy. In fear of his own life, Kim Jong-Il might be made to see the wisdom of giving up his nuclear program, and accepting unrestricted weapons inspections, as a condition of a cease-fire. I do not relish the prospect of another extended period of UN inspections accompanied by lying and evasion; however, if this was accompanied by a militarily defanged DPRK with nuclear facilities in ruins, and a more secure South Korean capital, that outcome would be preferable to both the status quo, and a full-scale war that could end with the U.S. fighting China, as the previous Korean war did.

There is also the possibility that China may be actively planning to quickly occupy the North in the event of war -- it has already increased troop levels near the Korean border in preparation for this contingency. I do not believe that Beijing took this step because it actually wants to fight the U.S. and South Korea. Fundamentally, a war with the U.S. in Korea is not in the PRC's national interest; if China must fight the U.S., it wants the conflict to be over Taiwan, not Korea. Rather, I think Beijing's intention is to halt a total collapse of the North in any conflict and demand a cease-fire line that stops short of a total reunification of Korea.

To avoid a war with the PRC, I think the U.S. would accept such a proposal (though South Koreans would be livid), and Beijing would use its de facto control of the remaining North Korean territory to remove the Kims and place a compliant government in power, one which would abstain from WMD programs. This outcome would meet the security needs of the major powers; a continued division of Korea would be immensely tragic for the Korean people, of course, but South Korea would have a significant expansion of territory and population to console itself with.


It would not be easy for any presidential administration to execute these strategies. It will require nerve, a willingness to throw the dice to achieve a goal that is an urgent national security priority, a willingness to proceed in spite of criticism, and most of all, a tough-minded realism about the nature of the North Korean regime. Oddly enough, when one thinks of an American politician who has the necessary traits, the first name that comes to my mind is John McCain. A pity the senator is not in a position to use those qualities just when America needs them.