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Mr. Kim's Nuclear Missiles: Options for the Future
Several missile tests and the most recent nuclear test have demonstrated resolve and eagerness on behalf of the North Korean regime to become a nuclear weapons state. It is now clear that Pyongyang is not yet capable of manufacturing sophisticated rocket components but the skill and ingenuity in using Soviet rocket components has grown “very substantially”.1 This is not good news for the long run.
It seems that North Korean engineers and technicians have learned quite a lot in the last years. They still have to master miniaturization of bombs, warhead technology, the phase of reentry, and targeting. But the missile and nuclear tests moved up estimates of the timeline for fielding a reliable long-range nuclear missile and Mr. Kim does not need perfect solutions – simple nuclear devices can also be used to devastate large populated areas.
1. Theodore Postol, Markus Schiller, Robert Schmucker, “North Korea's ‘Not quite’ ICBM can't hit the lower 48 states”, in: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 11.8.2017
So What are the Options?2
Washington is under increasing pressure since, to date, it has only been reactive and not proactive – contrary to what Donald Trump himself has promised or – more precisely – has threatened to do. Both Tokyo and Seoul must fear that the U.S. are shifting towards the worst possible form of action and will start a military intervention which could escalate towards another war in Korea.
There is a set of options available to the US and its allies in order to initiate negotiations and prevent North Korea from further advancing its capabilities. These options can be sequenced and applied in combination. Yet, none of these options appear only by themselves as promising and each would be effective only to a limited extent.
Military intervention remains to be the the most dangerous and least promising option. There would be a great degree of uncertainty and risks. Even with only limited strikes on missile bases the conflict could quickly escalate and lead to hundreds of thousands of casualties. And even an extensive military intervention would only delay, but not completely stop, Pyongyang's development of nuclear-capable, long-range missiles. Another Korean war would be expected to last for weeks or even months and would have unforeseeable consequences. A war scenario employing only conventional weapons would likely claim at least one million lives – and this number would dramatically increase should nuclear weapons be used.
The Trump administration continues to insist that“all options are on the table” with North Korea and preemptive war remains one of these options. But it must reckon with the likely possibility that even eliminating Kim by a decapitation strike would not eliminate the risk of North Korean nuclear use. Any policy solution that does not include the complete and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea would leave this specter looming. 3
The second category of options means strengthening deterrence and defence. This option suggests that the U.S. and its allies strengthen their capabilities to deter and defend against North Korea. This allows for increasing military pressure on Pyongyang, while avoiding the use of force.
The choice already taken is to strengthen missile defense within the trilateral system of the US, South Korea and Japan. North Korea's missile test on 28 July led Seoul to accelerate the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Japan is working to improve its missile defense (Aegis and Standard Missile, SM) in order to provide its navy with new interceptors (SM-3 Block IIa). Tokyo also wants to deploy land-based systems (Aegis Ashore, AN/SPY-6 radar and enhanced PAC-3 interceptors).
Current ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems have so far not been particularly successful against long-range missiles. Should Aegis BMD ships be used against a North Korean missile, this might reveal deficits: missile defenses“will likely miss, feed data to rivals and embarrass the United States” 4 (and Japan). Or it may trigger unintended reactions by actually fuelling an escalation instead of preventing it.
Missile defense is the preferred choice of action but it does not work the way it is supposed to do. Deterrence by denial only gives some more time to decision-makers but it will not solve the problem. Over-reliance on BMD could even impede diplomatic efforts that could avoid a dangerous confrontation. And there will be more missiles flying over Japan because Mr. Kim wants to establish a credible deterrent (and a more realistic combat trajectory will enhance confidence in the reliability of his missiles).
So the 3rd option is simply to implement the sanctions. However, the complex sanctions regime seems to be failing due to the lack of collective implementation. China's trade with North Korea did not decrease in the first quarter of 2017, but instead rose by 40 percent. Now the US increased pressure by unilaterally imposing secondary sanctions against Chinese banks and companies. That works a little bit better now. But the new UN sanctions are indeed, according to Trump, “not a big deal”.
Beijing will be unwilling to implement tougher sanctions against Pyongyang before the National Congress of the Communist Party in October and. Like Moscow5 it does not want to seriously jeopardize the Kim regime. Maybe China's president Xi Jinping even will – in the absence of concessions from the US – prefer to maintain the fragile status quo in which North Korea acts as a geopolitical buffer state against the U.S. Finally, there is little hope that sanctions alone will change the behavior of the North Korean regime (and a comprehensive embargo will not be supported by China and Russia)6.
Option # 4 is giving diplomacy a chance. But starting negotiations is seen as de facto recognizing North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, honouring its breach of international norms. As a result of this dilemma, no U.S. administration has yet pursued a negotiation goal less ambitious than the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. As the Trump administration is also following that line, Washington does not consider an arms control regime worthwhile although that could result in a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile advancements.7 And even if a freeze were enforceable, the risk of proliferation would remain.
In any scenario of negotiations, Pyongyang would certainly demand more and different concessions than it has in the past, such as the stop or adjustment of US-South Korean military exercises.
So instead of security guarantees as in the past, an alternative option would be to replace the ceasefire agreement of 1953 by a peace treaty. Currently, political resistance in both Washington and Seoul pose considerable obstacles. For example, the US-South Korean alliance as well as the deploy-ment of US troops to South Korea would lose their legitimate justification which would ultimately lead to Washington’s retreat from Korea.
But Washington is not scaling down its commitments. It currently builds up more pressure in East Asia. The U.S. Pacific Command has developed a plan to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations two to three times over the next few months, thus reinforcing the U.S. challenge to Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.8 Washington is not showing any interest to make concessions or a transactional“deal” with China. As a consequence, there is no reason to expect changes within the Sino-American relationship, nor any bilateral progress on the Korean issue in the foreseeable future.
Finally, as a last option, it is conceivable that the Trump administration will not officially accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, but come to terms with it over the course of time. A strong deterrence posture, extended to allies, is the most time-tested and reliable means of coping with a nuclear-armed adversary. And the armed forces of the United Sates, South Korea and Japan will remain militarily superior and will act massively if Mr. Kim launches a nuclear-armed missile against their territory. At the same time, Pyongyang will continue holding Seoul with its artillery as hostage, and cities in Japan as well as US bases are within reach of North Korea's missiles. So a kind of asymmetric deterrence aready exists.
US commitments to extended nuclear deterrence will become more credible, the less the need for their implementation – meaning, the fewer nuclear weapons North Korea has or the better equipped South Korea’s and Japan's armed forces are. A regional arms race could be the result.
2. Cf. Michael Paul and Elisabeth Suh, North Korea's Nuclear-Armed Missiles. Options for the US and its Allies in the Asia-Pacific, Berlin: SWP, August 2017 (SWP Comments, 32/2017).
3. Cf. Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda, Command and Control in North Korea: What a Nuclear Launch Might Lokk Like, in: War on the Rocks, 15.9.2017.
4. Dave Majumdar, “There May Be No Way to Shoot Down North Korea's Ballistic Missiles”, in: War is Boring, 31.8.2017.
5. Russia's goals are similar to those of China: to maintain stability, to preserve Korea's division, and to advance denuclearization.
6. China had long worried that an oil cutoff altogether would lead to North Korea's collapse. Somini Sengupta, After U.S. Compromise, Security Council Strengthens North Korea Sanctions, NYT, 11.9.2017.
7. China and Russia have proposed a “double freeze” on North Korea's missile and nuclear tests in ex–change for a freeze in joint military drills by South Korea and U.S. Washington has rejected that proposal. But the U.S. could consider adjustments to the exercises without undermining readiness.
8. Gordon Lubold/Jeremy Page, “U.S. to Challenge China With More Patrols in Disputed Waters; Schedule of naval operations is set for the first time in effort to pressure Beijing over its maritime claims”, in: Wall Street Journal Online, 1.9.2017.
What are the Lessons Learned?
Kim Jong-un is usually dismissed as dangerous and a “madman”. But developing both a whole set of different ballistic missiles on land and sea and an inventory of up to sixty nuclear warheads is quite impressive. The missile strike passing over Japan showed skill and judgement. So Mr. Kim is dangerous but not mad. 9
Firing a missile at Guam would have been a direct attack on the United States, and, especially, on Donald Trump's pride. Some kind of military retaliation from the White House was eventually too much risk. Therefore Mr. Kim prefered to go for a US ally and to menace Japan. To let a nuclear-capable ballistic missile fly over populated areas of Hokkaido was testing the resolve of his neighbour and he found them, satisfyingly for him, weak: Japan's missile defenses are limited, and the Constitution limits military action only to instances of self-defense. As a consequence, more missiles flying over Japan are to be expected.
Mr. Kim's timing is perfect: Washington is preoccupied with managing Trump and the hurricane season, and Beijing wants a quiet Party Congress to consolidate Xi Jinpings power. Seoul and Tokyo have asked more for words and economic actions, but cautioned against military intervention. Thus, there will be no immediate response from his enemies.
What are the lessons for nonproliferation, now that North Korea showed an odds-defying ability to acquire both the technology and the skills to build nuclear-armed missiles? Relying primarily on export controls and trying to limit technology may buy time but are insufficient against a proliferator like Mr. Kim who is determined to indigenously master nuclear and missile technology. Future nonproliferation policies should address the proliferator’s underlying motives (which is their sense of insecurity) and they must build a stronger multilateral coalition, also addressing their motivations for joining the coalition.10 Containing the missile threat by expanding missile defense fuels the security dilemma – and that is not only a problem for North Korea, but also China and Russia, which fear a kind of encirclement by the US and its allies and a threat for their second-strike capability.
Now President Trump has put more pressure on North Korea and criticized South Korea's President Moon for trying to appease Mr. Kim.11 But Moon has the right approach, nevertheless currently there is only one realistic set of options: an old-fashioned mixture of deterrence, defense and dialogue.
Therefore, Washington's objective should shift from denuclearization to deterring the North from ever using or proliferating its nuclear weapons and missile technology. US defense secretary Mattis has warned North Korea that any threat to the US or its allies would be met with a “massive military response”. Other than Trump's “fire and fury” this is a clear message for the time being while Mr. Kim will go on testing his missiles.
North Korea is still a few years away from a nuclear-armed ICBM able to reach the continental US.12 But de facto it has become a nuclear weapons state. Instead of the current emphasis on ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons, policymakers should aim to develop “a long-term strategy designed to minimize North Korea’s capacity and willingness to utilize those weapons and related technologies in threatening ways, while also continuing to work toward eventual denuclearization. ” 13
Europe is not in the focus of Mr. Kim's missiles but that can change. Again Brussels, and maybe Berlin, should become part of future negotiations.
9. Cf. Nicholas L. Miller und Vipin Narang, “How North Korea Shocked the Experts”, in: Politico, 26.8.2017.
10. Cf. Miller und Vipin Narang, “How North Korea Shocked the Experts”.
11. Choe Sang-Hun, “Allies for 67 Years, U.S. and South Korea Split Over North Korea”, NYT, 4.9.2017.
12. The Wasong-14 tested on July 4 and 28 may not even be able to deliver a North Korean atomic bomb to Anchorage, Alaska. Postol et al, “North Korea's ‘not quite’ ICBM”.
13. Michael D. Swaine, “Time to Accept Reality and Manage a Nuclear-Armed North Korea”, 11.9.2017.
Is the Iran deal suitable for North Korea?
Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered German participation in any future talks with North Korea and made a parallel to the multilateral talks with Iran over its nuclear program.14 Indeed, substantial progress can be achieved when key international actors put aside other differences to place nuclear non-proliferation and international security as a top priority. But the Iran deal could not have been achieved without a number of key features which also seem to be relevant for negotiations with North Korea.
Again, the role of both the European Union and the United Nations would be critical in creating political legitimacy for a deal. A number of so-called Track II processes would be required, which include academic and international NGOs sustaining back channel talks with North Koreans to discuss possible elements of proposals. Time is required to establish confidence building measures and the focus mainly set on the technical aspects rather than the political differences to facilitate the process. And a North Korea deal will require a commitment to find agreement between China and the United States on the ways forward in East Asia even when they do not fully agree, and when other international crises are creating strains in the relationship. At last, but most importantly, the U.S. must not abrogate the Iran agreement; the Trump Administration is required to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is complying with the July 2015 nuclear deal (i.e., the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), and that this agreement is in the national-security interest of the U.S. As imperfect as the JCPOA is, reneging on it without sound evidence of Iranian violation would be a mistake. A diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis is only a viable option when the U.S. keeps its agreements.
14. “Europe and especially Germany should be prepared to play a very active part in that. ” Steven Erlanger, “Merkel Sees German Role In Engaging North Korea”, in: NYT, 12.9.2017.
Outlook: Containing the threat
It is in the interest of all parties involved to prevent a military escalation and further proliferation of nuclear and missile technology. The crisis must be resolved through peaceful, diplomatic and political means. But a sanctions-only strategy will not work. Containing the threat means that sanctions be combined with a strategy of both engagement and pressure, shared by a united coalition of the United States and its allies. Both Japan and South Korea are under stress to decide how they should be responding to the North’s rapidly advancing nuclear program, including what role they should play as American allies and to what extent they should upgrade their armed forces. Though Japan provided rear support for the United States during the Vietnam and Korean Wars, this alliance has never been tested as it would be in a conflict with North Korea.