Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Learning to live with a North Korean ICBM

There is much complaining in South Korea and Japan that missile defence is too expensive. The time for this whining is over.

A news broadcast on North Korea's ballistic missile launch at Seoul Station last week (Photo: SeongJoon Cho/via Getty Images).
A news broadcast on North Korea's ballistic missile launch at Seoul Station last week (Photo: SeongJoon Cho/via Getty Images).

Last week’s test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by North Korea raises the time-honored question of East Asian international relations: what to do with a neo-feudal, cold war-relic wildly out of touch with the modernising ethos of the fast developers of this region? North Korea is a bizarre anomaly; Victor Cha has referred to it, correctly, as 'the impossible state'. It is surrounded by business-like states with little interest in ideology, focused mostly on rapid development and economics, and concerned with traditional ‘national interest’ issues like territorial disputes, trade deals, and shifts in the balance of power. North Korea, by contrast, is a bizarre and frightening mish-mash of gangsterism, feudalism, and sun-king ideology.

It is grossly out of place in its modernising region, and this wide variation from anything surrounding it, indeed from anything in the world, is much of the reason why we find it so hard to live with an emerging North Korean nuclear missile. Whenever I speak on North Korea to non-experts, the adjective I hear most often in the Q&A is ‘weird'. When cable news pundits discuss North Korea and the possibility of bombing it, this too is the implicit reasoning: North Korea as a grotesque, un-understandable, terrifying place who simply cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons. Hence the growing debate over force.

Bombing won’t happen, because South Korea has a veto

I have written about this elsewhere, but it is worth reiterating why a strike will not happen given all the cable news talk about how this ICBM launch is a game-changer.

The most important reason is not strategic but political. Any 'kinetic' action by the US against the North would risk substantial Northern retaliation. US allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, would likely be the targets of that retaliation. Yes, North Korea might launch against Alaska too now that they can range it with a missile. But Pyongyang could strike with far greater force and flexibility in the region. Its many missile tests into the Sea of Japan over the last year are almost certainly intended to signal Japan that it too is in the firing line. But of course, it is South Korea which is most vulnerable.

Therefore, any US strike against the North would require, both politically and morally, the assent of the Japanese and especially South Korean governments. Politically, a strike without their assent would almost certainly terminate the alliance(s) immediately. South Korean and Japanese populations and cities would likely face devastating retaliation after a US strike. If they did not have the right to consent to the risk of that strike before running it, why would they stay in alliance with the US? Morally, it would be astonishingly callous for a democracy to risk hundreds of thousands of lives without even soliciting those people beforehand for their assent.

In short, even Donald Trump, for all his bluster, is not going to attack North Korea without South Korean and Japanese approval. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative and a hawk on North Korea, might assent. But the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-In, is a liberal and a dove on North Korea. He wants outreach and engagement. He will never assent, and his five-year term has just begun. In short, there will be no US strike against North Korea in the next five years, because the South Koreans will not agree and the US is unwilling to abolish its alliance position in Northeast Asia.

There are other reasons why military action won't happen, including the possibility of Chinese involvement spiraling into a Sino-US shooting war, and North Korean use of human shields around bombing locations. But the South Korea veto alone is sufficient to stop this, and it is in place for at least the next five years.

We learned to live with Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani nukes

If kinetic options are not, in fact, ‘on the table,’ what other choices do we have as the ‘impossible state’ progresses toward a nuclear missile that can strike the lower 48 states of the US? In brief, adaption. The US and the West learned to live with the nuclear missiles of unfriendly regimes in the past. Despite the hysteria of the Cuban missile crisis, we did adjust to the Soviet ability to strike the US homeland less than a decade later. When China developed that capability in the next decade, the US did not provoke a repeat of Cuba. By then, US policy-makers had accepted that some level of nuclear proliferation was likely and that the costs – the constant risk of major war if Cuban-style crises were repeated - of trying to prevent others from nuclearising were enormous.

Pakistan too developed nuclear weapons and, despite all the regular panic about a South Asian nuclear war, it has not happened in the 20 years since India and Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold. Nor has Pakistan handed off nuclear weapons to salafi terrorists, lost a nuclear weapon, accidentally launched a nuclear missile, suffered an Islamist nuclear coup, and so on. So we have adjusted to at least three non-democratic or partially democratic states with nuclear weapons. This suggests we can learn to live with a North Korean nuclear missile too.

None of this is preferred of course; better that none of these states had nuclear missiles. But Northern nuclearisation is simply a reality at this point, as it is for these other states. North Korea has these weapons and the only option to compel rapid de-nuclearisation – the use of force – is fraught with dangers and politically impossible anyway because South Korea, the North’s most obvious counter-strike target, will never agree. 

China, Sanctions, and missile defence

So what to do?

In the long run, if North Korea changes, it will likely be due to the slow leakage of foreign ways, particularly South Korean media, into the country. That should entail generational change and undercut the ‘weirdness’ that so much of the world finds so frightening. And in the short term, there are no good options. The real debate, then, concerns medium-term approaches, specifically the debate between engagement and a tougher line. Assuming engagement does not work - and it has not in the past - the usual options re-assert themselves.

Sanctions: Often unfairly condemned for not stopping the nuclear and missile programs, but that is not an appropriate counterfactual. The better question to ask is: 'Where would these programs be without the sanctions effort?' Also, sanctions, and sanctions relief, give us a bargaining chip if the regime ever chooses to negotiate, just as they did in the Iranian denuclearisation negotiations.

China: Whatever else we may say about Trump, his instincts on China and North Korea are correct. He did the right thing by trying to engage China on Pyongyang. China’s economic leverage over North Korea is enormous. The North’s trade and banking operations – licit and illicit – go through China. If China were to genuinely close the pipeline into North Korea and strictly enforce sanctions, North Korea would almost certainly enter a major economic crisis. We have little choice but to keep working with Beijing, as every president since the 1990s has realised.

Missile defence: Sanctions and the China route have indeed been disappointing. We have little choice but to keep trying them; however, we should consider what measures the democracies can take unilaterally. The most obvious is missile defence. There is much complaining in South Korea and Japan that missile defence is too expensive. The time for this whining is over. North Korea is not going to stop building missiles; China is highly unlikely to coerce North Korea into that, and the US is even less likely to bomb North Korean missiles.

A ‘roof’ of layered missile defences, beginning with Patriot missile batteries around major sites and moving upward with Aegis cruisers and THAAD, is now an obvious choice. As defensive systems, they signal no offensive intention. We can continue to look for smarter sanctions, Chinese assistance here and there, negotiations, and so on. But if there is any one thing last week’s emergence of North Korea as long-range missile power should tell us, it is that we need to ability to block those missiles. This is the future of deterrence, and perhaps conflict, with North Korea.

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