With the Winter Olympics under way in frigid Pyeongchang, South Korea, fears of a catastrophic conflict on the Korean Peninsula have temporarily receded. But the pageantry of the opening ceremonies belied simmering tensions that threaten to boil when the Games conclude and U.S.-South Korea military exercises resume.
South Korea hopes Olympic diplomacy can find an off-ramp to a “Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But North Korea has refused to include its nuclear weapons and missile programs in talks, and the Trump administration shows few signs of taking advantage of a momentary thaw to launch a diplomatic offensive.
Bush used Saddam Hussein’s depravity to make the case for a disastrous preventive war. Lawmakers should ask whether the White House’s recent efforts to highlight tragic suffering at the hands of Kim Jong-un’s regime similarly are meant to lay the groundwork for precipitous military action.
Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force against Iraq in October 2002. Its deliberations over the threat, the long-term costs of war, post-conflict reconstruction and governance, and the impact on America’s international standing, allies and the region were inadequate.
The consequences of another war of choice, on the Korean Peninsula, would be far worse. The independent Congressional Research Service estimates that, even if North Korea does not use its weapons of mass destruction, 30,000 to 300,000 could die in the first days alone of an artillery barrage.
Congress should lead a much-needed national conversation on North Korea policy, and ultimately authorize any military action where a threat to the country and allies is believed to be imminent. Five key issues comprise a good starting point for debate:
Sanctions. The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has produced strong United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang. Its prodding of China, which enables North Korea’s economy, has improved their implementation. Sanctions take time to bite, can still be strengthened and enforced with greater fidelity. Given the stakes, non-compliance should trigger secondary U.S. sanctions against foreign businesses.
Diplomacy. Sanctions are not an end in themselves. Their objective is to compel North Korea to reconsider the costs and benefits of its nuclear missile programs. It presently views them as necessary for survival, but it may be willing to take stabilizing near-term steps, such as freezing its nuclear and missile testing, at an acceptable asking price. Trump’s State of the Union speech omitted any mention of testing North Korea’s intentions, reflecting the administration’s dim view of diplomacy.
Deterrence and containment. The sometimes-unacknowledged elephant in the room is that North Korea already may have the capability to deliver a nuclear-tipped missile that can hit the U.S. mainland, or may be able in a few months, or, if maximum pressure and engagement fall short, a couple years. But even assuming the worst, deterrence and containment worked during the Cold War against both Joseph Stalin’s Russia and Mao Zedong’s China.
More importantly, it has worked against North Korea: Kim’s father admitted to a clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2002 and conducted its first nuclear test back in 2006, and yet, the credible threat of retaliation, alliances and a forward-deployed U.S. military presence has prevented major conflict.
This approach isn’t without risks. Foremost is North Korea selling sensitive nuclear technologies to other bad actors. Maritime interdictions, strong pressure to dissuade customers, and clarity on how we, and ideally China, would respond may mitigate this danger.
Military options. The arguments in favor of preventive military action hinge ultimately on an indeterminable inquiry into Kim’s mind. Most experts believe North Korea’s impulsive, young leader is rational and shares his family’s finely-tuned instinct for self-preservation. But if they are wrong, then how can even a well-calibrated, limited strike not introduce a high risk of uncontrollable escalation?
America’s best intelligence has underestimated North Korea’s capabilities. That should serve as a humbling reminder of how little we know and what could go wrong in a disarming or warning strike.
Let’s be clear: Even a smart and strategic approach based on sanctions, military readiness, alliance management, diplomacy and missile and cyber-defenses is unlikely to “solve” the problem. But Congress needs to assess whether the residual risks are more tolerable than the costs of war.
North Korea is called “the land of lousy options” for good reasons, but this time, we can ill-afford for Congress to opt out.
Atman Trivedi worked on North Korea policy on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and at the State Department. He is a managing director at Hills & Company, International Consultants. Follow him on Twitter @AtmanMTrivedi.