How to stop a North Korean nuclear trainwreck
© Getty Images

The assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the older half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, is yet another bizarre episode in a string of reality TV events that is now commonplace in our public discourse.

It's easy to get sucked into the intrigue, but it distracts from the big picture: The United States is in the middle of a slow-motion trainwreck with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and missile program. North Korea's missile tests on Monday are just the latest alarm in what could spiral into a full-blown crisis.

We better start listening.

Unless we do something about it now, a "metal on metal" collision could be in the offing, marked by more North Korean tests and calls within Washington for military strikes to stop them.

Kim Jong Nam's murder and the subsequent media circus obscure more crucial events: China's decision last month to ban all coal imports from North Korea; the Feb. 11 test launch of a mobile, land-based, solid-fueled missile; and, critically, the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises happening this month, that almost certainly sparked last weekend's tests.

ADVERTISEMENT
A substantial and unexpected shift in policy, the Chinese ban on coal — if implemented — would effectively cut North Korea off from an estimated $1.9 billion in export earnings, or anywhere between 33 percent to 50 percent of its total trade, depending on whose numbers are used.

 

The bottom line? In one move, China has given up a huge amount of economic leverage, effectively telling the U.S.: "It's your problem now — to solve or make worse."

There is little doubt the North Koreans are seething.

North Korea's recent successful test of an intermediate-range missile, which is land-based, mobile and solid-fueled, only exacerbates a bad situation. This missile, when operational, will be harder to detect and destroy compared to the stationary, liquid fuel rockets the North currently possesses.

Not only will North Korea have a less identifiable first-strike capability, it also will have the capacity to absorb an initial attack and retaliate with something nuclear-tipped. It is not a coincidence that we are now hearing increasingly loose talk within the Beltway about so-called "preemptive" strikes on North Korea.

Needless to say, the situation couldn't be more loaded as this year's U.S.-South Korean military drills — which in the North's mind are potentially existential provocations — kicked off. Indeed, the North fired the first warning shot recently with four tightly targeted missiles into the Sea of Japan.

The purpose? First, the North Koreans sought to demonstrate an ability to attack U.S. forces in Japan.

Second, they wanted to see how the Trump administration would react.

Finally, they showed the capability to overwhelm any kind of missile defense that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea has or is planning to have.

Making matters worse, this year we have Kim Jong Un on one side: A young, relatively inexperienced and unpredictable leader prone to aggression who could be facing internal turmoil (one explanation for killing his brother).

On the other, we now have President Trump. In such a high-stakes standoff, if we're not careful, these two leaders could prove to be a volatile — and deadly — mix.

In short, what we have now is a regional tinderbox ready to be lit by a small spark that could lead to an exchange of fire and subsequently another war.

Given the immense downsides, is there something we can do to keep these military exercises from further prompting unnecessary and dangerous escalation?

Possibly.

While at this late stage there is no time for wholesale changes to our military exercises (nor would we want to do so), they can be modified to reduce perceptions that forces are being configured for a real attack on the North, so long as we don't lose sight of the need to maintain operational readiness and deterrence, for which there can be no compromise.

Doing so could help defuse an exceptionally charged situation in the short-term. But we also must keep our eye on the long game. Even if we manage to get through the next few months unscathed, the tired status quo policies of the U.S. and its allies will not work.

Inevitably, we'll end up with one or a combination of a hostile, unstable foe that will have approximately 40 to 50 nuclear weapons capable of hitting all of South Korea and Japan in as little as five years, and in 10 years, a missile system capable of hitting the continental United States; a sanctions-squeezed North selling fissile material — which in the wrong hands could obliterate a city — to the highest international bidder; or another war on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea is the land of lousy policy options. The least-worst option focuses on a freeze of the North's activity in exchange for what it wants: security, political legitimacy and economic sustainability. To do this, we have no choice but to swallow a bitter pill. Using what little leverage and pressure we have, we must talk with the North Koreans at sufficiently high levels, something we haven't done for some time.

But we must make these hard choices now — or they will be made for us.

Philip W. Yun is executive director of Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based peace and security foundation. He previously served as senior adviser to the assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and as a senior adviser to two U.S. coordinators for North Korea Policy: former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and former Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Yun was a member of a government working group that managed U.S. policy and negotiations with North Korea under President Clinton and was part of the U.S. delegation that traveled to North Korea with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.