How to Defuse the North Korean Threat

North Korea has embarked at breakneck speed upon a slipshod effort to field land-, mobile-, and submarine-based ICBMs with nuclear warheads. Unlike the eight other nuclear powers, North Korea’s doctrine resides unknowingly and capriciously in the mind of one man.

All nuclear doctrines are different, but most never go beyond the conditional when treating their arsenals as instruments of deterrence. North Korea, however, issues an unrelenting stream of histrionic threats that comport with its recklessness in the shelling of South Korea and sinking of one of its warships, the kidnapping of Japanese citizens in Japan, assassinations abroad, executions and Stalinist gulags at home, criminal sources of revenue, proliferation of missilery, and, tellingly, its perpetual war footing.

The totality of its declarations, behavior, and accelerating nuclear trajectory cannot be ignored. Nuclear weapons alone radically change the calculus of any strategic problem. Given the complexity and fragile interdependence of the structures of American life, nuclear detonations in only a few of our cities constitute a true existential danger. North Korea’s successful August test of the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile — along with its construction of a second ballistic-missile submarine and its development of longer-range land-based missiles — will put North America at risk.

Note that North Korea has no defensive need of nuclear weapons. Because of the vulnerability of South Korean population centers, it can exercise an almost equivalent deterrence with its conventional forces and huge stockpile of chemical weapons.

Over two decades the U.S. has run the extremes from President Clinton’s foolish or deceptive claim that his diplomacy had solved the North Korean nuclear problem, through the serial procrastinations of subsequent administrations, until the belated realization that if nothing else works the U.S. will have to attack North Korea full force. The first option has failed. The second, to which it is possible we may be compelled, is catastrophic.

The heart of South Korea’s economy and half its 50 million people are densely concentrated within range of the approximately 10,000 North Korean artillery pieces, rocket launchers, and short-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering chemical munitions, of which North Korea has an estimated 5,000 metric tons. Even conventional explosives would have a devastating effect. No matter how fast South Korean and American forces raced to suppress such fires, not to mention a nuclear attack itself, millions would probably die.

With such shock and escalation there is no guarantee that China or Russia would not come to North Korea’s aid. Russia could also take the opportunity to feast upon Eastern Europe if American power were monopolized by the battle, as it would be.

As undesirable are the two extremes of a North Korean nuclear strike or pre-emptive war in armament-saturated East Asia, America cannot accept the former. The U.S. will be forced to the latter if it fails to exploit the considerable ground that still lies between them.

North Korea is almost entirely dependent upon China, which is responsible for 85% of its trade, knows the country, and might have links to still-living potential replacements for Kim Jong Un. Given China’s fearless and severe nuclear doctrine, it is itself invulnerable to North Korean threats. Until recently, China has been content with North Korea as a fleet-in-being — i.e., something with which to tie down competing powers in Asia, or unleash as another front in case of conflict elsewhere.

Now that things have gone too far, U.S. actions combined with the natural course of events can influence China to change this policy and move to defang the North. Throughout Chinese history instability has led to ruination. Seoul is closer to Beijing than San Francisco is to Seattle, and China does not want a major war on its border, especially one that may draw in the U.S. and Japan, both now augmenting conventional forces in the area.

President Trump wisely has been willing to abandon demonization of China and modify his protectionist catchall in return for China’s assistance. Yet it is of utmost importance for the U.S. to make clear that the Korean issue, unique and existential, will not be part of any strategic trade, such as in regard to the South China Sea.

China knows that the U.S. must respond to the North’s ongoing breakout, but even should it have doubts, further pressure will automatically ensue. To wit, South Korea and Japan are already well within North Korean missile range and have every reason to mount a vigorous ballistic missile defense. Now the U.S. has deployed the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system in South Korea. By obtaining early launch and trajectory data as it reaches deep into China, Thaad’s X-band radar is capable of enhancing American missile defense to the point of seriously compromising China’s nuclear deterrent.

Should the U.S., Japan, and South Korea further bolster missile defense in northeast Asia, it would have commensurate effects on China’s nuclear posture. Even more nightmarish for everyone, particularly China, would be if South Korea and (until now unthinkably) Japan developed their own nuclear deterrents, something that in the face of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and declarations the U.S. could not justly oppose any more than it opposes the British and French independent nuclear forces.

Avoiding an escalation crisis is in the interest of all involved, China no less than the U.S. Although America’s outrageous neglect of the North Korean nuclear threat has led to this pass, there is still a way out. It requires steady nerves and a clear view of the strategic interplay among all parties. The fundamental dynamics of interests and security are now bringing China into a genuine, if temporary, alignment with the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. The U.S. should be wide awake to this in the days to come, because it may be, in fact, the only way out. If not, Katy bar the door.

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y] 01 May 2017: A.17.

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Mark Helprin