Last Sunday, North Korea successfully demonstrated for the first time that it could strike U.S. territory in the Pacific. After more than 25 years of wrestling with the North Korean nuclear threat, it’s time to recognize that North Korea is not merely seeking to gain bargaining leverage against us. Rather, it is determined to possess nuclear weapons, and we need to develop a realistic strategy for containing, defending against and deterring what will be a persistent and growing nuclear threat.
There’s every reason to continue pursuing sanctions and diplomacy, but we should not premise our policy on the expectation that such efforts are going to succeed in persuading North Korea to change course. We must also recognize that there is no acceptable military solution to the problem.
Even before the North produced its first nuclear weapon, the United States calculated that the potential cost for any military strike was too great for America and South Korea. Now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, as well as missiles that can reach Guam and beyond, this logic is even more compelling.
It is indeed true, as the Trump administration has concluded, that China has the wherewithal to compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. But China is a great power that has had plenty of time to think through its policy. It is concerned, but clearly not panicked. More important, it perceives plenty of downsides to overreacting, including the potential collapse and absorption of its ally, North Korea, into America’s ally, South Korea.
So great is our dependence on China that, like hostages held by a kidnapper, all previous administrations developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome, coming to believe that China was doing everything it could to help solve the problem, when it manifestly could do more. After 25 years, we should not assume that more hectoring, promises or threats will persuade China to act in ways it believes contrary to its interests.
In the absence of good military options or a Chinese deus ex machina, the remaining options for eliminating the threat are limited. We’ve tried them all, and all have failed. Bill Clinton pursued engagement, which lasted until North Korea was caught cheating on its commitments to us. George W. Bush switched to confrontation, until North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon. Then he reverted to engagement, but Barack Obama found the results so disappointing that he shifted to ignoring the problem (or, as his administration called it, “strategic patience”).
The Trump administration can pick any of these options, but there’s no reason to expect different results. North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated that it can withstand sanctions and that it will pocket whatever inducements we offer without abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
It’s time to take North Korea’s words and actions at face value: North Korea is a nuclear-armed state and is determined to remain one. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system to South Korea is a welcome first step to contain the threat, allowing us to shoot down short- and intermediate-range missiles fired from North Korea.
As North Korean missile capabilities grow, THAAD needs to be augmented with more robust missile defense systems, including the ship-borne Aegis system, the Aegis Ashore system now being deployed in Romania, expanded interceptor capabilities in Alaska and the corresponding sensors necessary to maximize the effectiveness of all these systems.
But purely defensive systems will not suffice in deterring North Korea. We need new offensive capabilities that match North Korea’s. For starters, because of U.S. pressure, the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles has been limited by mutual agreement since 1979. Such limitations make no sense in the face of North Korea’s growing missile threat and should be lifted immediately.
At the same time, additional offensive strike options need to be made available to our allies in the region, including long-range strike aircraft, aerial refueling capabilities and precision-guided munitions.
President Donald Trump was ridiculed during his campaign for suggesting that South Korea and Japan may want to consider deploying their own nuclear weapons. But Trump did not invent this idea. Polls show that roughly two-thirds of South Koreans believe their country should have its own nuclear weapons.
As an alternative, the United States should be prepared to return its own tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula. The withdrawal of those weapons was announced by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 as North and South Korea were finalizing an agreement to denuclearize the peninsula. North Korea has never respected that agreement, so we need not defer to it, either.
None of these ideas represent a preferred response to the North Korean nuclear threat. They are, instead, a last recourse. But the past quarter-century teaches that we have no realistic alternatives.
Rademaker, a principal with the Podesta Group, was an assistant secretary of state responsible for arms control and nonproliferation from 2002 to 2006.