No dialogue with North Korea will bring us down a destructive path
© KCNA via Getty Images

Tensions are running high, as President Trump promised on Tuesday that “fire and fury” would follow if North Korea continues to threaten the United States with statements about use of nuclear weapons and missiles. After more rhetorical exchanges, North Korea by late Wednesday had broadcast its plan to fire four Hwasong-12 ballistic missiles close to Guam later this month. Trump responded Thursday, saying maybe his “fire and fury statement” actually “wasn’t tough enough.”

Does this mean that we are on the brink of war with North Korea? No, as there does not appear to be signs indicating that either country is currently planning for a war. For example, if military strike preparations were underway, the U.S. would seek to evacuate the nearly 200,000 U.S. civilians living in South Korea.

There might also be additional military assets being moved to the region and unusual reports of troop movements around the Korean peninsula. There would also likely be intense internal debates in the U.S. government about authorizing the use of force against North Korea and the limits of presidential power. There do not appear to be reports of any of these actions taking place right now.


We should not, however, underestimate the threat that North Korea poses to the United States and the international community. North Koreans are rapidly building a robust ballistic missile program and are test-launching them from locations across the country. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, is also fixated on the development of miniaturized nuclear weapons so he can fit them on long-range missiles and threaten to strike the United States.

Their progress is marked both by the remarkable pace of testing in the last couple years — 18 missiles tested in 2017 alone — and the speed at which they acquiring important technologies like the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Last month alone, they launched two ICBMs that potentially could hit as far as Los Angeles and Chicago, surprising even experts who track their progress.

Amid the heated exchanges, we seem to have lost sight of the bigger picture. What are we doing to stop the development of North Korea’s nuclear program? Some progress was made last weekend when the U.N. Security Council voted 15-0 to pass a resolution that is aimed at cutting North Korean export revenues by $1 billion. The Trump administration scored a diplomatic win in getting China and Russia to vote for the resolution, but this was quickly overshadowed by the events of the week.

It is important to return focus to the big picture. The use of effective economic pressure and assertive diplomacy are some of the only realistic options that are available to curb the development of North Korea’s nuclear program. Will sanctions completely stop their nuclear program? Not likely, given the North Korean drive for nuclear weapons, which they believe can guarantee the survival of their regime.

Policymakers and experts alike recognize that enforcing sanctions is very difficult and they are not a silver bullet. But, sanctions can be a useful tool when appropriately combined with other tools like diplomacy. Ultimately, the goal is to build enough leverage to encourage North Korea to return to negotiations to discuss an end to their nuclear weapons program.

China plays a big role in the problem. The political influence and the economic leverage it has over North Korea means that the effectiveness of sanctions enforcement and multilateral diplomacy often depends on Chinese cooperation. But there are ways to work with China and the U.S. has done it in the past.

Washington and Beijing worked to bring down a Chinese company that was helping North Korea to launder money and evade sanctions just last year. There are also other options that the U.S. government can pursue to help “play the China card” and some of these may include stronger coercive measures to encourage Chinese cooperation like secondary sanctions.

As North Korea rapidly progresses in its weapons technology, we are being confronted with increasingly more difficult choices. There are no reasonable analysts who believe that taking military action against North Korea under the current circumstances is a good idea. It would virtually guarantee all-out war in the region.

North Korea would retaliate by attacking Seoul or Tokyo, or may strike U.S. territories like Guam or Alaska with missiles. North Korea is also keenly aware that any preemptive strikes against the U.S. or its allies would bring about an immediate response from the U.S. ending the existence of the regime.

This means deterrence between the U.S. and North Korea is still in effect and that we are not on the brink of war. North Korea is clearly, however, pushing the boundaries of what it can achieve through asymmetric coercive military means. Unless we find a way to eventually return to dialogue, we may find we are really on a destructive collision course with North Korea.

Lisa Collins is a fellow in the office of the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. This publication represents only the personal views of the author and not those of her organization or any of her colleagues.

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