There is no military option to take out North Korean nuclear program

North Korea’s most recent provocation, this time test firing a ballistic missile likely able to reach all of the continental United States, is an incremental change in a bad status quo. It is making fast advances in its 30-year quest to hold the American homeland hostage, but already crossed thresholds that make it deeply threatening to our security.

The question now is what does North Korea want? What price we will pay to restore strategic stability on our terms? War is not inevitable or desirable. But largely because of the forcing actions of President Trump, the risk of nuclear war involving the homeland is at its highest level since the Cuban missile crisis. Miscalculation and momentum toward conflict is putting at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of American and other civilians across Asia, including Guam and Hawaii. Soon, North Korea will be able to marry a nuclear warhead on a rocket capable of hitting all the United States.

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We need to be the adult in managing events, and how we comport ourselves is critical. Flippant rhetoric from the president insulting the North Korean leader in mocking and personal terms does not help. Unviable saber rattling by U.N. Ambassador Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyGraham knocks South Korea over summit with North Publisher says Woodward book sales largest in its history Bianca Jagger visits DC to spotlight 'brutal assault' on 'people of Nicaragua' MORE about our immediate readiness to eliminate the North Korean state if it continues testing is escalatory and must stop.

The Trump administration is setting up binary options when so many more exist. There are smart and prudent steps, such as increasing our ballistic missile capabilities and offering North Korea a diplomatic path to back down, essential to easing tensions. We must, once again, recognize basic facts that seem to get forgotten each time there is another flareup.

First, North Korea will not be sanctioned into submission. The United Nations imposed nine rounds of sanctions against it since 2006. Sanctions devastate the North Korean people, but not its elite who make decisions. North Korea did not make real concessions in the 1990s even in the face of famine and biting sanctions that killed a tenth of the population. Keep squeezing North Korean elite, but be under no illusion it will compel real change.

Second, China prefers a damaged buffer state over one that collapses and ends as a part of a pro-West, unified border state with strong ties to Washington. No North Korean action to date has altered China’s fixed view that a nuclear and misbehaving North Korea is preferable to its demise. North Korea knows this too.

Third, there is no military option to “take out” North Korea’s dispersed missile and nuclear programs. There is no way for us to take out the North’s 8,000 artillery pieces and rocket launchers that hold hostage Japan and South Korea. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford offered in July that war with the North would entail the “loss of life unlike any we have experienced since World War II.”

Fourth, North Korea is a nuclear weapons power and will not negotiate away its arsenal. Few believe there is anything we, China or anyone else can offer the North to give up its strategic deterrent, or its shorter-range rockets and artillery that threaten millions in Seoul, on terms remotely viable to us.

Fortunately, there are concrete steps we can take, and some cases already are, to minimize risk. These steps must continue and be accelerated. We just harden our defenses to better neuter North Korea’s small, but eventually nuclear tipped, long-range ballistic missiles. We have 44 ground based interceptor missiles at Fort Greely to counter the threat.

This is inadequate for confident shoot down capability for anything more than one small salvo of single warhead incoming missiles, probably less than 10 including decoys. Congress rightfully authorized up to 28 more ground based interceptor missiles in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Congress must appropriate the funding.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisArmy chief: Poland doesn’t have space for ‘Fort Trump’ The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump Overnight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes MORE should run point in ensuring South Korea follows through on its commitment to purchase and fully deploy the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense network, regardless of Chinese opposition. This, combined Japan’s decision to acquire additional Aegis destroyers from the United States, will improve early shoot down probability of missiles headed toward the United States.

Our diplomatic challenge is vexing, but one that, when broken down into viable paths, has a chance to buy us more time. Buying time does not sound appealing, but since war, total North Korean capitulation, and Chinese abandonment of its buffer state are off the table, it is our best option in the near term. Buying time means finding off ramps for de-escalation, reducing the volley of our largely empty but risky threats, and North Korea freezing tests in response. We should consider some sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze.

Over the longer term, we need to think through what it will take to move China, whose core issue is preserving a buffer state, not the Kim regime. We must evaluate options for addressing China’s real concern, which is thinking it will be cajoled into choking North Korea. There is much at stake in our walking down this path with China, but it is a study worth having.

Some argue that rollback is the best way forward. President Trump and at least some in senior ranks seem to think rollback by military force is realistic. It is not. Containment through enhanced military defenses and buying time for longer-term change is our best course.

Todd M. Rosenblum was a delegate to the Four Party Peace Talks in the 1990s. He was a senior official at the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2015. He is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and serves on the Defense Science Board Task Force on Homeland Defense.