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Dr. Robert Kaufman on President Trumps Risky and Costly Options on North Korea | Polizette

Rising Stakes and Risky Options for Trump on Korea

President faces four essential choices to contain the escalating threat posed by Pyongyang

Robert Kaufman | July 7, 2017 | Polizette

North Korea has raised the stakes of its escalating confrontation with the United States by successfully testing a Hwasong-14 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with the range to reach Alaska. Although North Korea has yet to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to deploy on the Hwasong-14, the size, scope and sophistication of North Korea’s nuclear program point toward Pyongyang soon acquiring a force of nuclear ICBMs capable of striking the entire West Coast of the United States.

President Trump has nothing but costly and risky options for dealing with the gathering North Korean nuclear danger, menacing not only the United States but Japan and South Korea — vital democratic allies in the world’s most important power center for the 21st century.

Option 1: Appeasement Disguised as Diplomacy 
As David Sanger reports in The New York Times, Russia and China — our adversaries— favor a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear tests and deployment in exchange for the United States suspending military exercises with South Korea. This would merely repeat the failed policies and wishful thinking of the Clinton administration, which deluded itself into thinking that talk would suffice to quell North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea used the negotiations to tranquilize the United States, extorting billions of dollars as ransom in exchange for a promise to forego a nuclear weapons program Pyongyang had no intention of keeping.

A nuclear freeze of today's North Korean nuclear program would likewise preserve its nuclear arsenal while unduly constraining American power in the Pacific. Such a freeze would undermine the credibility of our alliances in the region — alliances essential for credibly deterring a Chinese adversary bent on hegemony rather than stability. Expect that a belligerent, expansionist, autocratic China, the provider of 90 percent of their North Korean ally's foreign trade, to continue exploiting the nuclear crisis at our expense. Expect, too, that that Putin will do likewise.

Option 2: Rely on the International Community.
The United Nation's Security Council will simply not take strong action proportionate to North Korea's escalation. Russia and China will use their vetoes to prevent anything that reins in the rogue regime. Stiff sanctions alone would not suffice to convince an implacable North Korean regime to dismantle its nuclear program or renounce its nuclear ambitions.

Option 3: A Pre-emptive Surgical Strike.
A strike directed against North Korea's nuclear arsenal may turn out to be the least bad choice in the not-so-long run. The United States could not count on destroying the entire North Korean nuclear and chemical arsenal — some of it perhaps sheltered in hardened hidden sights or deployed on mobile missiles. Even a largely successful strike may leave North Korea with enough nuclear weapons to retaliate against South Korea or Japan.

As Matoko Rich reports in The New York Times, a completely successful strike taking out 100 percent of North Korea's nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them would leave South Korea's capital, Seoul — just 30 miles from North Korea's border — within range of North Korea's large arsenal of heavy artillery, which would survive American counterattack long enough in the event of war to inflict horrendous casualties. 

Option 4: Muscular Containment
This option conditionally offers the least bad choice for the time being. This comprehensive strategy entails largely what the Trump administration has wisely done so far:

  • Keeping all options — including pre-emption — seriously on the table while avoiding the trap of prematurely drawing lines that would trap us in the binary choice of an all or nothing response regardless of the circumstances.
  • Preparing to use the full range of U.S. capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies.
  • Sustaining a preponderance of power on land, sea, and in space credibly to deter our adversaries in the region, especially North Korea and China.
  • Cutting off the sources of hard currency to the North Korean regime.
  • Restricting the flow of oil to their military and weapons program.
  • Penalizing countries that aid, abet, and do business with the North Korean regime.
  • Forging a coalition of willing decent democratic allies rather than relying on an unreliable China or Russia to bail us out of a confrontation the way Obama did at such enormous moral political cost with Putin in Syria.

Ultimately, the United States cannot safely tolerate a North Korea armed with an ICBM arsenal capable of striking the United States. What President Trump decides to do about North Korea will resonate widely and deeply beyond this immediate confrontation. Our friend and foes will draw critical conclusions about our foresight and fortitude affecting their calculations.

Trump must say what he means and mean what he says. Or North Korea will wind up being the equivalent of Obama’s Syrian debacle where American credibility vanished into the ether along with the evanescent red line in the sand.

Beyond these specific measures the administration should take on North Korea, President Trump must convince the American people about the imperative of accelerating the research, development, and deployment of ballistic missile defense. Otherwise, the increasingly costly and risky predicament the administration inherited with Korea offers but a bitter taste of what is to come.

Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”