Alternatives to a pre-emptive strikeClearly American patience is rapidly wearing thin with its failed North Korea diplomacy.
Last week, Professor Jeremi Suri wrote a provocative New York Times opinion piece calling on the United States to make a preemptive strike at North Korean missile sites. It has created a great deal of controversy. Americans’ growing support for military action suggests a couple of considerations.
First, American diplomacy has inadequately dealt with North Korea thumbing its nose at the rest of the world. How effective are economic sanctions if they are not coupled with other actions or credible threats?
Second, while “jaw-jaw” is better than “war-war,” if there is inadequate consensus among negotiating partners on common grounds vis-a-vis a common adversary, can one expect to achieve anything other than hoping for a negotiation miracle? Meanwhile, the DPRK has gained time to develop its weapons.
Third, if we look at the current “crisis,” there is very little materially different from prior crises other than the over-the-top rhetoric from a new DPRK leadership. What is concrete is evidence that the Pyongyang weapons program continues to make progress in achieving its goal of possessing nuclear ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles).
All of which argues that the United States and its allies need to come up with a substantial departure from past diplomatic strategies. Once more we witness a U.S. secretary of state swinging through the region, conferring with heads of state and assuring that substantial discussions have been made. So far, there is no news whether there is a new strategy more responsive to current realities or back to pouring the same old wine into yet newer bottles.
But one more option remains: redeploying U.S. tactical nukes back into South Korea. The last such weapons were withdrawn from Korea prior to Pyongyang testing its first atomic explosive device. Today, there is a range of estimates of how many atomic weapons the North possesses and how much material it has to assemble atomic weapons. For discussion’s sake, let’s recognize eight weapons. The United States could reintroduce eight tactical nuclear weapons. As the DPRK increases its stockpile of material/weapons, the United States would move a corresponding number of weapons back to the peninsula. Correspondingly, should Pyongyang reduce its nuclear capacities, so would the United States withdraw its weapons.
Needless to say, neither Beijing nor Pyongyang would welcome this move. Given North Korea’s rogue actions, both communist capitals have enjoyed schadenfruede at the expense of the region’s other powers. But Beijing also needs to appreciate that there can be immediate and tangible consequences for its geopolitical interests as a result of feckless calls for calm.
At the same time, reintroduction of U.S. nuclear arms into Korea may assuage calls among South Koreans to create their own defensive nuclear arms. The tangible demonstration of the U.S. nuclear umbrella in South Korea may calm nerves in Japan, where there is growing public opinion that Tokyo should have its own nuclear arms. Quite ironically, moving U.S. nukes back into Korea may actually strengthen regional nuclear anti-proliferation in the region.
Nonetheless, it may be too late now that the DPRK nuclear genie is out of the bottle. It is obvious that Pyongyang looks upon its nuclear arms program as the only dependable lifesaver for regime survival.
So would redeployment actually achieve the culling back of the North’s nuclear program?
As this idea is so far stated, the answer is no.
To make this proposal possibly work, the United States would communicate to Pyongyang and Beijing a set of goals and red lines that would lead to the increase of U.S. nuclear arms in Korea. Linked to these benchmarks would be sanctions not used since 2007 - financial sanctions that proved remarkably effective in the case of Macao’s Banco Delta.
In concert with redeploying nukes, the United States would announce invoking Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act to crack down on the use of the international financial system by “rogue states” and “state sponsors of terrorism” for both the DPRK and all nations that in effect “wink” at current UN sanctions by either explicitly or tacitly supporting the DPRK’s weapons development program - including by negligence. In effect, this would mean the U.S. Treasury could order U.S. companies and financial institutions to cut links with China as well as the DPRK, probably on a phased basis as North Korea crosses each red line.
While this may seem rather drastic, consider the long-term consequences of a pre-emptive strike. First, no one really knows what would be the DPRK’s response. We may expect the reaction to be asymmetrical and most likely deadly. Second, the United States would establish a dangerous precedent by shooting down test missiles or attacking test missile sites. Several countries are developing weapons with potential nuclear capabilities. If the United States can justify preemptively attacking its adversaries, what is to stop other nations?
Furthermore, by attacking the DPRK, we can count on China, Russia and other nations roundly condemning the United States for its actions and thereby greatly obfuscating, to North Korea’s benefit, fundamental issues.
Wiser minds have been looking for U.S. foreign policy alternatives. In the absence of a new approach for dealing with Pyongyang, radical ideas such as Dr. Siri’s will surely stir U.S. passions for possible war making. Such ideas may be fun to ruminate in Austin, but they are a source of nightmares in Seoul.
* The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a business development firm, and an alliance partner of Odgers Berndtson Japan, a global Big Six executive recruitment consulting company.
by Tom Coyner