A troubling consensus is forming among foreign policy elites: The world must accept a nuclear armed North Korea. This consensus follows on the heels of the Iran nuclear deal that essentially assures that nation of a viable nuclear weapons program as well within a decade or sooner.
This proliferation needs to be stopped now or rendered impotent. Failure to do so will result in a dramatic increase in the number of nations joining the nuclear club or aspiring to do so, and it will have tremendous consequences on global security well into the future.
Perhaps a dramatic increase in the number of nuclear armed nations will make the world a more peaceful place, since the consequences of escalating violence would be high.
More likely, we could envision a world in which despots use the threat of nuclear attack to extract concessions from others, ranging from economic extortion, prevention of interference in regional proxies carrying out nefarious activities, to outright demands for external support to failing regimes.
Despite claims of stability based on a three-generation transfer of power in North Korea and decades of clerical rule in Iran, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the respective populaces of these nations grow weary of despotic rule and foment unrest to unseat an unpopular government.
If that government has nuclear weapons, does it peacefully abscond or does it threaten its own population or the populations of peaceful neighbors to prop itself up indefinitely? Now add to the threat the growing list of regimes that will follow the lead of North Korea and Iran in acquiring nuclear weapons, and the world becomes a much more dangerous place.
There are no good options to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. The options include a tactical nuclear strike, a limited conventional strike, a massive naval blockade combined with coercive pressure on China and Russia to prevent land-based supply and accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea.
A pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike is the only military option that eliminates the North Korean weapons program and avoids mass casualties of South Korean citizens and American soldiers within artillery range of the North Korean border. However, it is legally dubious and ends the de facto arrangement among nuclear powers that first use is unacceptable.
A limited conventional strike does not have the necessary elements of surprise and destructive power to prevent conventional retaliation that will result in hundreds of thousands, if not millions of South Korean casualties.
A blockade and economic coercion to encourage Chinese and Russian cooperation is extremely costly, could have severe domestic economic impacts and may collapse under domestic political pressures. Even if it were successful, it risks the same potential for a North Korean military response as the regime collapses.
Accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea is simply one step closer to a dystopian future.
The situation in Iran is hardly different. The Iran nuclear agreement that the Obama administration negotiated in the summer of 2015 is little more than accepting a nuclear armed Iran, albeit somewhat delayed. Still, it was the best deal that could be had at the time, assuming that the global sanctions regime was no longer sustainable without the credible threat of preemptive war.
Given these choices, the Trump administration has limited options for both North Korea and Iran. It can continue the decades-long tradition of limited delaying actions or it can proceed on a morally dubious path of preemptive war that comes with its own set of unforeseen consequences.
Neither are acceptable, so a third way needs to be initiated immediately. The U.S. should remain party to the Iran nuclear agreement excepting significant material breach of Iran’s commitments and commence a full-scale diplomatic effort to delay further development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Rather than declare delay a success, the Trump administration should announce a dedicated “man-on-the-moon” level of effort to render intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) impotent with the goal of successfully demonstrating that technology prior to the transition day of the current Iran nuclear deal.
While we currently possess technology that the commander of the Missile Defense Agency believes “can meet today’s threat”; we need technology that renders ICBMs essentially useless at a deployed cost that is sustainable.
That will take time and effort. Unfortunately, we know the deadline. Even more unfortunately, our current efforts are not at a scale and pace to beat it.
Cmdr. Michael Nordeen, representing the U.S. Navy, is a national security affairs fellow for the academic year 2017‐2018 at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Navy or Department of Defense.