Frustrated that North Korea has been undeterred by international sanctions, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is conducting a policy review to look for more effective ways to counter Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear threats.
Adding new urgency to this longstanding security threat is North Korea’s accelerated efforts to develop the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM.)
In January President Trump tweeted “it will not happen,” in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s statement indicating that his country would soon test an ICBM.
U.S. administration officials say that all options are on the table to deal with the increasing North Korean threat, including military action and deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan.
Regional security analysts Grant Newsham with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, and Bong Young-shik with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul talked to VOA about the risks and the benefits of some measures being considered.
High risk: Military strike
Preemptive U.S. military air or missile strikes to take out North Korean nuclear and missile sites are unlikely to end the nuclear threat, and there is a high risk of deadly counterattacks that could draw China and the entire region into war, say these analysts.
“Really if a military strike or approach is considered, the U.S. had better be ready to go all in and be ready to finish it,” said Newsham.
North Korea has hundreds of mobile missile launchers, many of which are kept in underground bunkers that would be hard to detect and target.
Even if U.S. strikes could destroy all of the country’s nuclear and long-range missile facilities, North Korea could still attack Seoul and other regions near the inter-Korean border with artillery and chemical weapons that could kill millions in South Korea.
By taking unilateral military action against North Korea, the United States would be putting its own security needs ahead of its allies in Asia and would likely trigger a regional political backlash.
“They will put almost all South Korean citizens against the United States because it is totally against the very purpose of the security partnership between the United States and South Korea,” said Bong.
Even limited military actions, these analysts say, could too easily draw the United States into another military quagmire that could cause massive devastation and economic ruin.
No benefit: Nuclear allies
Either deploying American nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan or allowing them to acquire their own may bolster U.S. support for its allies in Asia, but these analysts say they will not likely restrain North Korea.
The United States withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. Subsequently the two Koreas signed an agreement to keep the peninsula free of nuclear weapons.
North Korea later walked away from the agreement, citing the threat of a U.S. invasion.
Analysts say reintroducing nuclear weapons in the South, and deploying them in Japan for the first time, would likely legitimize the North’s nuclear arsenal and justify its efforts to develop long-range ballistic missile deterrence. It would also weaken the international commitment to maintain sanctions against Pyongyang and could spark a global nuclear buildup.
Difficult: Effective sanctions
Imposing real economic pain remains the best of the bad options to restrain North Korea from continuing to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.
“You have to put North Korea in a situation where the leadership has to decide between the continuous pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles, and its survival.And I don’t think North Korea is very close to being forced to make such a big decision,” said Bong.
The international sanctions imposed on North Korea have not had a restraining influence so far, in part because of lax enforcement.
“They have allowed the regime to get the money they need to survive and that has always been the regime’s key vulnerability, the need for money,” said Newsham.
The North’s key economic trading partner China is reluctant to strictly implement crippling measures that might destabilize the region or lead to the collapse of its ally.
North Korea has also been able to get around the imposed international restrictions by using companies in friendly countries like China to act as illicit fronts.
Last month the United Nations accused North Korea of “flouting sanctions through trade in prohibited goods, with evasion techniques that are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication.”
To more effectively crack down on North Korea’s illicit financial dealings, the United States would likely have to target more Chinese companies that do business with North Korea
On Wednesday a Chinese telecom equipment maker ZTE Corp. agreed to plead guilty and pay nearly $900 million in a U.S. sanctions case, for dodging export controls in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan and Cuba.
However China strongly opposes foreign governments putting unilateral sanctions on Chinese companies and there are concerns that Beijing will retaliate against any increased U.S. pressure or legal actions.