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Hanging up on the Kim Family

Constantly threatening neighbors with nukes has been the Kim family method of being a big man on the block for decades.  For a dynasty living in a shack palace in a rich neighborhood,  North Korea's Kim Jong Un has done OK, receiving aid from those he's menaced and Kim feared (he would say "respected") even by those with no conceivable reason for fearing him.  Economic giants like China, Japan and South Korea hang on his every word.

Yet without the ability to twirl a nuclear gun around his finger Kim would be a punk nobody. The constant problem for Kim is how to keep skirting the edge without falling off it.  Now he may have slipped up.  Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has announced Kim that since "diplomatic and other efforts" had proved useless it was time for a "new approach".

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo after talks with Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, Mr. Tillerson said, “The diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed,” noting that during those 20 years, the United States had provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea to encourage it to abandon its nuclear program.

“Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach,” Mr. Tillerson added, saying he would highlight the issue in Seoul, the South Korean capital, and Beijing, the next stops on his trip.

Tillerson did not say what such a new approach would be except to rule nothing out.  But since open source studies have long mapped out all the conceivable alternatives it is not too hard to make a reasonable guess what it will be.   The main alternatives to diplomacy are to 1) undertake kinetic military action and/or 2) expand and strengthen allied defenses.  Kinetic military action is out.  Trump's own campaign promises and the inherent riskiness of war make it unlikely except as a response to an actual North Korean attack.

That leaves a program of expanding Japanese and Korean defenses as the most probable "new approach". This will probably take the form of creating an integrated missile defense network over the northern Pacific.  It would suit the Department of Defense's book which has long identified the need for a shield against threats from the West and East -- North Korea and Iran.  It would be relatively simple for Trump administration to ramp up the construction of the missile shield with the co-operation of Japan and South Korea, countries with immense technological and industrial resources.

Presently, sophisticated ballistic missile technology is available on a wider scale than ever to countries hostile to the U.S. and our allies ... Iran's ballistic missiles are capable of striking targets throughout the region, ranging as far as southeastern Europe. Iran is likely to continue developing more sophisticated missiles, with improved accuracy, range and lethality. ...

North Korea has expanded the size and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces — from close-range ballistic missiles to ICBMs — and has conducted an unprecedented level of nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches since 2016, including its fourth and fifth nuclear tests, as well as its short-range, medium-range, intermediate-range, long-range, and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launches. In February 2016, Pyongyang launched a TD-2 SLV from a west coast testing facility. The technology involved in a satellite launch would be applicable to North Korea's other long-range missile programs. In addition to the Taepo Dong 2 SLV/ICBM, North Korea is developing and has paraded the two road-mobile ICBMs which, if successfully developed, would likely be capable of reaching much of the continental United States.