Commentary: Containing North Korea our best bet, in a world of tough options

Commentary: Containing North Korea our best bet, in a world of tough options

Experts have suggested sanctions, isolation and increasing the pressure on China. The Brookings Institute’s Jeffrey A Bader argues that the world should seek to contain North Korea instead.

The war of words between the US and North Korea sparked a state-organised rally in support of Pyongyang's stance, at Kim Il Sung square in the capital. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON: It’s undeniable that North Korea’s unexpectedly rapid development of intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities - to complement its nuclear weapons programme - presents a serious challenge to US national security.

It has occasioned scores of commentaries with suggestions on how to cope with the emerging threat to the US homeland posed by a rogue regime led by an international lawbreaker who has not hesitated to unleash violence against internal and external foes.

There have been, however, very few proposals with a realistic chance of eliminating the threat.

Short-term fixes are the wrong approach. Instead, the US and its allies should prepare an assertive policy of deterrence and containment of North Korea.


It is much easier to describe why various proposals will not work than to find the magic bullet that will. Before laying out what I think we should do, here are the broad categories of options that have been put forward. These have to be considered, but they either will not work or will have intolerable costs:

First, a US pre-emptive strike to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Such a strike would invite devastating retaliation by North Korea against South Korea and perhaps Japan. With some 15,000 conventional artillery launchers within 50 miles of Seoul, North Korea is capable of causing mass casualties in the South, even without resorting to nuclear missiles. An all-out war in the Korean Peninsula would likely produce large-scale American casualties.

Additionally, even if such a war were successful, there would be angry calls in South Korea for terminating the alliance with the US in the wake of a US-triggered conflict; there could be a risk that the US has traded a dysfunctional North Korean enemy for a vastly more capable Korean foe.

Second, negotiations on the basis of the 2005 Six-Party agreement which includes the US, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea. These would call for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for concessions and aid to North Korea from the US, Japan, and South Korea.

This would be a desirable and sensible approach - indeed one that the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations followed - but unfortunately, Pyongyang has made it clear it has no interest in such a negotiation. It insists it is a nuclear power and has written possession of nuclear weapons into its constitution. So this reasonable suggestion appears to be a non-starter.

Wu Dawei, China's Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs, talks with Kim Hong Kyun, South Korea's representative to the Six-Party talks, as they wait for South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se before their meeting in Seoul. (Photo: Reuters)

Third, a freeze-for-freeze option. China and Russia have proposed a freeze on US-South Korea major joint exercises in return for a North Korean freeze on nuclear and ballistic missile testing. But this proposal would accept the equivalency of prudent US-South Korea self-defence exercises with nuclear weapons testing by the only country in the world engaged in such, whose intent is to intimidate and develop the capability to cause mass destruction among its neighbours.

As former Six-Party negotiator Christopher Hill has pointed out, accepting such a precondition for negotiations would encourage loss of confidence in the US-South Korea alliance, which is one of Pyongyang’s principal diplomatic objectives.

Fourth, negotiations without preconditions. This is invariably a popular proposal in dealing with belligerents. In this case, however, it would be a non-starter. The North Koreans have evinced no interest in a negotiation that does not validate their status as a nuclear weapons power. Even if they were to show up for such talks, the North Koreans can be expected to continue development of their nuclear and missile programmes while negotiations proceeded.

The North Koreans would see such talks as tantamount to US-Soviet arms negotiations, which treated the parties as equal and limited numbers of nuclear weapons and missiles on both sides. This is not a road the US should go down.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the second test launch of ICBM Hwasong-14 in this undated picture provided by KCNA. (Photo: KCNA via Reuters)

Fifth, treating North Korea as a problem for China to solve. US President Donald Trump seems to believe that China could easily solve the North Korean problem, presumably by exerting intolerable economic or military pressure on Pyongyang.

While there is no doubt that China could exert greater pressure on North Korea, and indeed should do so, that will not end development of the North’s nuclear programmes. North Korea has built its programmes substantially on its own, with some technology and parts acquired illicitly from abroad and some funding provided by its limited exports.

The alliance between North Korea and China is also a thing of the past.

North Korea understands that there is almost no scenario in which Chinese troops will save North Korea as they did in 1950. The two enjoy at best a cold relationship that is likely to worsen. North Korea ranks among the lowest countries in the world in terms of foreign trade. Chinese pressure should be part of any solution, but it will not by itself be decisive.

Sixth, sanctioning Chinese companies that trade with North Korea. Such an approach has some of the same shortcomings as relying on China to solve the North Korea problem. China may be responsible for 90 per cent of North Korea’s foreign trade, but the total amount is trivial.

A complete halt in Chinese economic interaction with North Korea - which is not on the cards - would no doubt be painful for the North, but Pyongyang would find ways around it, through smuggling, an opening to South Korea (which South Korea’s new president could reciprocate), yet greater self-reliance, and endless belt-tightening.

US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping last met at the G20 Summit in Hamburg in July. (Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb)

If Washington goes too far in sanctioning Chinese companies, China would retaliate by diminishing or eliminating its cooperation with the US on North Korea, which would be devastating for any successful outcome.

Seventh, making US relations with China contingent on China solving the North Korean nuclear problem. Such an approach would trade one problem for two: A North Korean nuclear threat would be compounded by a hostile relationship with the world’s number two power, with whom the US needs to cooperate on numerous global economic, security and political issues.


So what should the US do in the face of an intolerable security threat from North Korea?

The US needs to realise that while some situations may be unacceptable, they do not lend themselves to short-term fixes. The North Korean challenge is one of them.

America’s foremost early Cold War strategic thinker and diplomat, George Kennan, analysed the challenge posed by the Soviet Union in 1947 in a famous commentary in Foreign Affairs magazine, in which he laid out the argument for containment, deterrence and pressure.

Faced with a foe against whom the US could not reasonably afford to contemplate an offensive war aimed at regime change - and who viewed its survival as dependent on hostility to the US - Kennan argued for a strategy based on the Soviet Union’s relative weakness vis-à-vis the US.

Kennan contended that over time, the USSR would reform or crack under the pressure exerted by the US and its allies.

As it developed over the next four decades, the containment policy was active and assertive, featuring the world’s strongest alliance in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), extensive economic sanctions against the USSR by the US and NATO, a long-term military build-up and proxy wars around the globe, and a public relations and propaganda battle.

The differences between the Soviet Union and North Korea of course are immense, and by invoking Kennan’s article and the strategy that grew out of it, I do not mean to suggest any comparability between the two.

One was a global challenger by a military peer based on an anti-imperialist ideology and intellectual tradition, an empire of like-minded satellite states, and a worldwide network of tools of influence and propaganda outlets; the other is a poor and isolated small country of no global or regional influence.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boasts of having the capability to strike anywhere in the United States after testing a second long-range missile, seen here in this handout from Pyongyang's official news agency. (Photo: AFP)

Notwithstanding these fundamental differences, some of the challenges are similar:

  • How to deal with a nuclear-armed foe with whom armed conflict, if not unthinkable, is at least a profoundly unattractive option;
  • How to utilise the US’ enormous advantages against a foe with one strength and many profound and eventually fatal weaknesses;
  • How to prevent serious strategic setbacks in the US’ relations with allies if the foe pursues a policy of either excessive confrontation or one of weakness; and
  • How to prevent massive loss of life while the problem is unsolved, while using the tools that give the US an overwhelming advantage to ensure ultimately a successful outcome.

An assertive policy of deterrence and containment of North Korea could involve the following elements:

  • Military pressure on North Korea through exercises, modernisation of weapons systems deployed in the area, and willingness by the US and South Korea to respond forcefully to North Korean military provocations as both sides have not done in the past;
  • Development and deployment of anti-ballistic missile capabilities to defend the US homeland, US forces in the region, and its Japanese and South Korean allies;
  • Imposition of as close to an international embargo on trade and investment relations with North Korea as the US can persuade the international community to adopt;
  • A three-way dialogue among the US, South Korea and China about how the US would react to various contingencies in North Korea, such as instability or breakdown;
  • Understanding that the US cannot achieve its objectives without close collaboration with both South Korea and China, North Korea’s land neighbours. In the case of China, the US should be prepared to sanction Chinese entities that engage illicitly with Pyongyang in order to demonstrate we’re serious, but not go so far as to alienate China from the overall effort against North Korea;
  • No assurances to North Korea of acceptance of its regime prior to agreement to denuclearise. Covert actions against the North should be part of a deterrence and containment strategy; and
  • Strengthened political and military alliances with South Korea and Japan. The US should not encourage either to develop nuclear weapons, which would make an already fragile regional security situation more unstable, but should take steps to provide unmistakable assurance to both that the full range of US military retaliatory options and protection would be available if either were threatened.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) interceptor is launched from the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak. (Photo: REUTERS)


Containment and deterrence are not appealing options, just as many condemned those approaches as passive, immoral and defeatist during the Cold War. In fact they were none of those then, and would be none of those now.

But before the US accepts the necessity of such an approach, the US could offer the North Koreans - both directly and through the South Koreans and the Chinese - one last chance for them to turn away from the disastrous course they are on.

The US could propose a deal that would offer them much of what they say they want in return for their complete denuclearisation and dismantling of their missile programme, namely:

  • Establishment of full diplomatic relations;
  • End of the economic embargo and sanctions, economic assistance and investment; and
  • A peace treaty to replace the 64 year-old armistice agreement.

In such an agreement, both sides would need to undertake carefully staged and backloaded steps, since trust is non-existent. Each side could commit to these objectives at the outset, with the timeline and key implementing framework to be negotiated.

There would be nothing in such an agreement that would be contrary to US national security interests, and it would provide to North Korea the security that it claims justifies its nuclear weapons programmes. Such a package would provide assurance to Pyongyang that any collapse of its system would be due to its own failings, not the actions of outside powers.

US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-In have been at odds on how best to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programme. (Photo: AFP/Jim Watson)

There is little reason to believe Pyongyang would accept such a proposal, as it seems to have dug in its heels on the need for a nuclear missile capability to strike the US. It is important, however, to demonstrate to the South Korean government and President Moon Jae-In, that Washington is prepared to put an attractive offer on the table, since Moon is seeking avenues for reconciliation with the North.

Moon could be given a leading role in trying to persuade Pyongyang to accept such a proposal. If Pyongyang refuses, as is likely, Moon will be more likely to support a serious containment and deterrence strategy.

The proposal would also provide an effective counter to periodic Chinese and Russian suggestions that North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programmes are a natural and understandable response to the US “threat” by making clear there would be no US threat if Pyongyang denuclearised. Moreover, it would give the US the moral high ground, making more likely Chinese and Russian support for the tough containment strategy that probably will be necessary.

Such a US negotiating strategy could be pursued both in cooperation with Seoul and through the Six-Party framework, but neither with optimism nor a desperation to succeed at all costs.

The US should simultaneously gear up for the long-term efforts that will likely be required to contain, deter and isolate a nuclear-capable North Korea for years to come, until the North either reforms or cracks.

The North can choose between the two paths of negotiation or isolation. It is unlikely to find a third.

Jeffrey A Bader is senior fellow at the John L Thornton China Centre at the Brookings Institute. This commentary first appeared on the Brookings Institute's blog. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/sl