OPINION | Richard Haass: There are no good options left on North Korea
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Here is what we know about North Korea. It is a poor country ruled by one family for three-quarters of a century. It is both dependent on Chinese economic help and fiercely independent. It poses a significant conventional military threat to South Korea and to the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there.

It may have as many as several dozen nuclear warheads and is adding to them at a steady clip. It is also developing (apparently with considerable help from a firm in Ukraine) ballistic missiles of great length and increasing accuracy, and it is mastering the technology associated with miniaturizing warheads and reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.

North Korea has accomplished this despite decades of economic sanctions and diplomatic opposition, including from its erstwhile supporters, China and Russia. Less clear is just why North Korea is doing all this. The most likely explanation is that its leaders see nuclear weapons as the best guarantee that the regime and the country will survive.

That they should think so is not surprising, as recent history has demonstrated that countries (Ukraine) and leaders (Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi) that relinquish nuclear weapons can make themselves vulnerable. Recent threats by President Trump have almost certainly reinforced North Korean views on this.


One cannot rule out other possible motives, including prestige and a belief that nuclear weapons will not just ensure the country’s survival, but provide a useful backdrop for a more aggressive foreign policy. There is no way to know for certain what accounts for North Korean decisionmaking, given how closed a country it is. But the United States cannot wait for perfect knowledge before it determines its policy, as not knowing is an inevitable feature of foreign policy.

What is more, not acting can be every bit as consequential as acting. The available options are all to one degree or another unattractive. One is to live with the emerging reality. This would require a conventional military buildup in South Korea, enhanced missile defenses in the region and closer to home, and statements as to what any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would be met with. The United States could also use cyber and other tools to interfere with North Korean programs and tests.

There may be a case for reintroducing U.S. nuclear weapons onto or near the Korean Peninsula so as to make deterrence all the more real. The aim of this option would be to manage the situation until sanctions persuaded the regime to change its ways or persuaded others in North Korea to act to change the regime.

The problem with this approach is that it would entail living for the foreseeable future, and possibly longer, with a growing North Korea nuclear and missile arsenal that could threaten an ever-larger number of Americans. It would require confidence that the North Korean leadership would behave rationally so that deterrence could be counted on to work, something the U.S. national security adviser questioned just days ago.

Living with a nuclear North Korea could give its leaders the confidence to act more aggressively versus South Korea. It could also, over time, drive both South Korea and Japan, as well as countries farther afield such as Vietnam, to reconsider their non-nuclear postures. The stability of a critical region of the world would suddenly be in doubt.

A second option involves launching a preventive military strike (using aircraft and/or missiles armed with conventional warheads) on North Korea’s known nuclear and missile sites. One problem is that a strike cannot destroy what cannot be located and cannot always destroy what can be, if it is well protected.

The bigger danger is that of North Korean retaliation, which would bring about a second Korean war of great human and economic cost and significant risk. For this reason, South Korea is certain to oppose any such action on the part of the United States. And China has warned it will intervene to prevent any attempt to overthrow the regime in Pyongyang or “change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula.”

The third option is to attempt to negotiate some sort of a freeze or ceiling on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. At the heart of this approach would be a ban on tests and possibly on the production of bombs and fissile material. It would require intrusive inspections. Getting the North Korean government to agree would be no easy thing, and even if they did, the threat would not be eliminated.

The additional matter is what the United States and others would need to offer up in exchange. China has proposed on many occasions a “freeze for freeze” — a freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea freezing (i.e., canceling) any military exercises.

Such a position is unacceptable to Washington, as the exercises are a response to the North’s conventional military threat rather than to its nuclear and missile efforts. But it is possible to imagine a mix of reduced sanctions, a formal end to the Korean War (which would offer recognition of North Korea), and possibly some modest adjustment to conventional military exercises.

Again, there is no good option, much less a solution. It is essential to jettison illusions. No amount of sanctioning will persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, nor will China step up and solve the problem for us. As much as Beijing would like to see North Korea change its ways, China will not apply so much pressure that it risks destabilizing what it sees as a valuable buffer state. To paraphrase what one French politician said about Germany during the Cold War, China likes Korea so much it is glad there are two of them. U.S. assurances about the character of a unified Korea are unlikely to change this.

The best course for the United States would be to explore diplomacy for a limited amount of time, to consider carefully the two remaining alternatives if diplomacy comes up short, and then to choose the least bad option. The era of strategic patience has given way to the era of bad choices.

Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order” (Penguin, 2017). You can follow him on Twitter @RichardHaass.

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