On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said of North Korea that the current U.S. “focus is on diplomacy to solve this problem that is presented by the DPRK. We must, however…be prepared for the worst, should diplomacy fail.” Not surprisingly, most recent commentary and analysis on the current North Korea crisis has focused on the prospects of either a near-term conflict or a diplomatic way out. That focus is understandable, but fixates on the two least likely outcomes. Rather than preparing for diplomatic or warfighting scenarios with a nuclear-armed North Korea, the United States should be preparing for a sustained period of deterrence, coercive diplomacy, and rollback. This is the best approach to achieve the international community’s long-stated goal of the eventual peaceful denuclearization and reunification of the Korean Peninsula at an acceptable cost.
Until now, every previous North Korean nuclear crisis somehow seemed to end with a new diplomatic framework for disarmament of the peninsula. We can be quite sure that will not be the scenario this time. Pyongyang now has a perfect record for destroying all previous agreements aimed at curbing its nuclear weapons ambitions — from the first North-South agreement banning nuclear weapons on the peninsula in 1991, to the Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2005 Six Party Joint Declaration of the George W. Bush administration, through the Obama administration’s “Leap Year” deal in 2012. Lest there be any residual doubt about Pyongyang’s intentions, the North Korean Constitution was changed in 2012 to codify the country’s nuclear weapons status. Pyongyang has also rejected all Chinese, Russian and South Korean overtures to discuss nuclear disarmament in the current cycle of crisis.
Even with increased sanctions and military pressure — which we think are necessary for other reasons, to be outlined below — the North is unlikely to change its basic stance on retention of nuclear weapons any time soon. At most, the United States might be able to negotiate a “freeze-for-freeze” arrangement as proposed by Beijing and Moscow, which would see Pyongyang stop nuclear and ICBM tests in exchange for a U.S. halt to regular military exercises and missile defense deployments. There are numerous problems with the “freeze-for-freeze” idea. To begin with, it confers legitimacy on the North’s nuclear weapons tests. North Korea is an illegal nuclear state, though there is nothing illegal about military exercises and missile defense. Moreover, it would undermine Japanese and South Korean confidence by leaving in place existing nuclear weapons and shorter-range missiles ranging those countries. And finally, a freeze-for-freeze would stop necessary and legitimate upgrades to U.S. and allied deterrence capabilities without any material reduction to the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
We can also rule out the alternate option being floated by some — a preventive military strike against North Korean nuclear weapons and missile facilities. While there may be leverage to be gained from demonstrating a willingness to consider that option, the consequences of actually acting would not be worth the costs of intentionally starting a war. A U.S. attack would be unlikely to eliminate all of the North’s missile and nuclear capabilities, and would likely invite a North Korean military response. Though retaliation from Pyongyang would result in the destruction of the North Korean regime, it could also cause over a million casualties in South Korea and Japan, not to mention the danger of North Korean transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorist groups hostile to the United States. The odds that the North would respond with its full capabilities are probably below 50% given the potential consequences to the regime, but the risk-benefit analysis still does not result in acceptable terms for the United States.
Deterrence and gradual rollback of the North Korean threat is therefore the best, and indeed, only option going forward. However, it is important to recognize that this approach would be significantly different from U.S. containment and deterrence of the Soviet nuclear threat during the Cold War for several reasons.