With sanctions failing, US must learn to live North Korean nuclear threat
It appears stable deterrence is the path that all players in the crisis on the peninsula will accept, writes Ankit Panda
North Korea’s successful test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile should not be a surprise. In January, the North Koreans observed that they were in the final stages of attaining this important technological milestone.
Shortly thereafter, US President Donald Trump warned that North Korea’s acquisition of an ICBM “won’t happen”, prompting a senior North Korean official to hint that Pyongyang would demonstrate the capability at any time.
When North Korea showed the world the Hwasong-14 ICBM on July 4, the United States’ Independence Day, observers recoiled with shock and surprise at the prospect that the US homeland was now subject to a potential nuclear strike by a deeply anti-American rogue state. However, the development is far from unexpected.
Since 1998, when North Korea first tested its Taepodong-1 satellite launch vehicle, the country’s aspirations for long-range ballistic missiles, capable of striking outside of the Northeast Asian theatre, have been well known. This year alone, Kim Jong-un has successfully introduced an entirely new suite of short, medium, intermediate and now intercontinental ballistic missiles.
For North Korea, holding the US homeland at risk is the only way to ensure the regime’s survival and to stave off any designs of military pre-emption or so-called “decapitation” by the US and South Korea. With a change of government in Seoul in May too, the possibility for an inter-Korean conflict is somewhat moderated, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in favouring diplomacy and engagement with the parallel application of sanctions.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has pushed on with its policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” toward North Korea, which is really a rebranded attempt to rehabilitate the Obama administration’s strategic patience policy.
The administration recognises that China, as North Korea’s overwhelming trade partner, holds the key to turning the screws on Kim, whose aims to attain both a powerful nuclear deterrent and a prospering economy.
While Beijing showed a degree of acquiescence to unusually harsh United Nations Security Council sanctions in 2016, its action appears to have been purely performative – an attempt to show the Trump administration that it is pulling its weight when, in reality, its national interest in avoiding a destabilised North Korean regime will continue to guide its decision-making.
Complicating matters, Moscow appears to have joined Beijing on the North Korean question. After the ICBM launch, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement supporting the so-called dual freeze solution, where North Korea would freeze its nuclear and ballistic missile testing in exchange for substantial US and South Korean concessions on their annual large-scale conventional exercises – an option that Washington and Seoul find deeply unappealing.
Looking at the broader picture today, we are neither hurtling toward an inevitable war on the Korean peninsula nor are we on the cusp of a miraculous diplomatic or sanctions-based solution to the problem of nuclear-tipped North Korean ICBMs.
While diplomacy has been the sole US policy option toward North Korea that has in the past succeeded in at least delaying the country’s development of nuclear weapons, the prospects for a present-day resumption of talks appear remote. Not only do Pyongyang and Washington lack the baseline level of trust to begin negotiations in good faith, but the Trump administration appears entirely disinterested in a shift from its sanctions-first policy.
Instead, the mundane reality with North Korea will be that the US, and the world, will muddle along, learning to live with another nuclear-armed state that, with every passing month, is further developing and diversifying its nascent nuclear forces.
The US, South Korea and Japan have long thought about deterring North Korea and they will continue to do so. In the era of the ICBM, however, the US also will have to learn to live with a North Korea that can claim to successfully deter.
As this reality sets in, Washington and its two Northeast Asian allies will no doubt continue to expand their bilateral and trilateral cooperation and continue to invest in defensive systems, including missile defence platforms.
North Korea has been called the land of lousy options and the July 4 ICBM test only underlines that fact. With the scope for a freeze remote amid divergent policy preferences, with sanctions foundering amid a lukewarm Chinese commitment and with a North Korean regime hell-bent on preserving its nuclear deterrent at all costs, the prospects for any divergence from the current path appear to be remote.
Looking for a solution to the North Korean problem by establishing stable deterrence is not the right way forward, but, unfortunately, it appears to be the most likely path forward.
Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat, where he writes on international security, diplomacy and economics in the Asia-Pacific region