News & Politics

The Four Options on North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: South Korea Simulates Attack on North’s Nuke Site.

South Korea’s military said its live-fire exercise was meant to “strongly warn” Pyongyang. The drill involved F-15 fighter jets and the country’s land-based “Hyunmoo” ballistic missiles firing into the Sea of Japan.

The target was set considering the distance to the North’s test site and the exercise was aimed at practicing precision strikes and cutting off reinforcements, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

On the political side, there’s a useful piece in The National Interest headlined, “Here Is What Chinese Scholars Think about the North Korea Crisis.” The author, Lyle Goldstein, admits upfront that “it has not been possible to develop a relatively comprehensive typology of Chinese assessments regarding the Korean nuclear issue.” China’s contradictory approach might best be summed up here:

The scholar Li Kaisheng [李开盛] sees no basis for cooperation because of different interests and a fundamental lack of strategic trust between Beijing and Washington. Li explains that one of the major restraints on the United States possible use of force against North Korea has been “China’s opposition and even [the possibility] of Chinese counter-attack” [中国的反对甚至反击]. He also straightforwardly explains that China will not accept the removal of the North Korean ruling regime, because that would mean U.S. military power directly on China’s border and the loss of China’s “strategic buffer” [战略缓冲地带].

Beijing is generally assumed to hold the key to “solving” the problem of North Korean nukes — to whatever extent it can be solved. The problem is that China apparently wants it all.

To see what I mean, here’s a (very) broad outline of possible outcomes:

• The status quo.

• Chinese political or military action against North Korea’s nuclear program, up to and perhaps including installing a new regime.

• U.S./R.O.K. military action short of regime change.

• U.S./R.O.K. military action including regime change, and/or forceful reunification with the South.

• There’s also the possibility of something like a repeat of the Six Party Talks and a diplomatic resolution. But given that Pyongyang has not and will not live up to any promises to abandon or even limit its nuclear program, this option is really just part of the Status Quo option.

Let’s take the main four options one at a time.

The status quo is quickly becoming unacceptable for the U.S./R.O.K. There’s never been an outlaw regime in possession of nuclear weapons and an intercontinental delivery system. And if the world is at all sane, the Great Powers would never allow this to happen. But we do not live in a sane world.

The second option has long been my favorite, but may also be the least likely. But imagine a swift PLA action against Pyongyang, followed by the installation of an economically reform-minded (and sane) new regime in the North. Under this scenario, China would maintain its puppet, and the North would lose its nukes, and the U.S./R.O.K./Japan would lose a major headache. And with China being the country taking the bold action, there would be almost no risk of a wider war. But it’s almost impossible to imagine the current Chinese leadership giving the “Go” order.

We can also safely discard the last option, since neither Washington nor Seoul has the will or desire to fight a Second Korean War — and anyway Beijing would never allow for regime change facilitated by anyone but themselves.

Which leaves us with the third option seeming the most likely: U.S./R.O.K. military action short of regime change. This one presents the smallest reward, since there’s no way to guarantee that a limited air campaign would effectively neutralize NorK’s nukes. It’s also fraught with the high risk, since there’s no way to guarantee that it wouldn’t lead to a wider war. But it is the kind of half-measure that politicians often fall in love with, because it can be sold as the high reward (“Of course we can take them out from the air”) / low risk (“Of course China would never oppose limited strikes”) option.

China would probably like this whole mess just to go away, and frankly so would the U.S./R.O.K. On the other hand, China seems to have zero interest in taking the least risky course, yet refuses to give even “a wink-and-a-nod” to a limited U.S./R.O.K. action.

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
-Yogi Berra

What happens next? In a sane world, the two Great Powers involved would take one look at Krazy Kim’s Discount House of Nukes and agree to de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula. The sanest approach might be a framework where Beijing puts whatever pressure is necessary (up to and including military force) on Pyongyang to eliminate its nukes and its missile program, in exchange for a permanent peace treaty replacing the 64-year-old Panmunjom armistice and giving full recognition to North Korea — and to whatever regime Beijing might install.

As previously noted, however, this is not a sane world and Beijing does not seem to agree that de-escalation is in everyone’s interest. So what happens next is anyone’s guess, but none of the options are good.