Jarrett BlancSenior fellow in the Geoeconomics and Strategy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Hell no. Setting aside whatever nuclear arsenal North Korea may already deploy, it is one of the only countries in the world with an effective conventional deterrent—in the form of its artillery famously aimed at Seoul. It is simply not acceptable to risk the loss of life that would flow from “hard power” when we have not yet fully explored the possibilities of deterrence and negotiations.
If North Korea can already deter U.S. military action using its conventional forces, why has the regime invested so heavily in its nuclear and missile programs? Is this evidence that it plans to use its new nuclear capability not just for regime survival? It is also possible that the DPRK simply believes our clippings. When Washington asserts that a realistic military option exists, the North Koreans see proof that they need to pose a more categorical threat.
The United States needs to return to the difficult business of building and tending diplomatic partnerships in the region while maintaining intelligence and law enforcement operations. This way, Washington can slowly build leverage to negotiate toward a less provocative situation.
Deterrence is deeply unsatisfying both from a moral and a policy perspective. So too is negotiating with a vicious regime. Nevertheless, these are not only our best current options; they are our only real options.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
If there ever was a chance of a successful military response to North Korea’s nuclear program, it is now gone. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson could have been more tactful when he suggested that in a war, North Korea could “vaporize large parts of the South Korean population;” but North Korea does have enormous firepower within range of Seoul. And if the United States attacked the Kim regime, there would be no guarantee (even if China stayed out of the fight) of achieving a rapid military victory, or of preventing North Korea from delivering a nuclear warhead—whether to South Korea, Japan, or U.S. territory—before the conflict was over.
If it is too late to stop North Korea having useable nuclear weapons, then the focus should shift to managing the situation. Western powers should work on China to slow North Korea’s progress, at least, by ensuring that no nuclear or missile technology, from whatever source, reaches it. But the West should also think creatively about talking to Pyongyang about issues such as nuclear doctrine. If there is one thing worse than North Korea having nuclear weapons, it is a situation in which the United States and North Korea misjudge the other’s criteria for using such weapons.
Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula is a grave global security threat with consequences reaching far beyond East Asia. The DPRK is eroding the nonproliferation norm and its ICBMs could soon reach the continental United States, eventually even posing a threat to Europe. It’s true that past attempts have failed to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program, which Pyongyang views as essential for regime survival and international credibility. Yet, talk of a military option is unpersuasive given the immense costs such action would incur.
This is not to say that hard power is irrelevant. Besides intensifying international diplomatic efforts and further toughing up UN Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang, strengthening regional deterrence must be a top priority. Ultimately, U.S. credibility as a global leader depends on Washington’s ability to protect its East Asian allies.
European leaders might rightly be concerned with Donald Trump’s ability to handle the crisis, but they must also offer leadership. Although the EU is not considered a credible regional security player, individuals such as Federica Mogherini or European states such as Sweden or Switzerland may try to stake out a mediating role. North Korea may seem far away from Europe, but the consequences of this crisis will undoubtedly impact European security.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Asia Centre
For once, Steve Bannon was right. There is no military solution regarding North Korea—unless you are prepared to accept millions of deaths, including in South Korea, an EU strategic partner.
There are only three options:
- Making a Faustian pact with the devil. This is probably the best option—as sanctions have failed for 20 years—but is unlikely to be acceptable to the United States, as Kim Jong-un would want to keep his nukes.
- Extending deterrence and expanding missile shield defense in South Korea and Japan. However, this is more of a short-term solution.
- Getting China and Russia to accept oil sanctions that would quickly cripple the Kim regime. But as Putin has rightly said, “they would rather eat grass than give up their nukes.”
The problem is that no one can predict the consequences of this crisis. A peaceful regime change in North Korea seems unlikely. China fears millions of refugees and U.S. troops on its border. There is a real danger of Götterdämmerung. What is imperative is that the UN Security Council (plus the EU, Japan, and South Korea) start talking seriously about all options, rather than leave next steps to the Tweeter in chief. Ultimately, China has to be persuaded that a peaceful, stable, prosperous, neutral, united Korea is in its own long-term security interest.
Malcolm ChalmersDeputy director general at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
It is widely agreed that U.S. hard power should continue to play a central role in deterring North Korean aggression. The controversial issue is whether the United States should prepare to launch a preventive strike, while it can still do so, without risking retaliation against its own heartland.
Given that South Korea would bear the brunt of the damage if war were to break out, the United States should only launch such a strike with Seoul’s clear consent. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine that their alliance could survive. Washington’s global reputation as a reliable ally, genuinely committed to common security, would be severely damaged, for it would have made clear that it was prepared to sacrifice Seoul to protect New York.
If North Korea becomes a nuclear, ICBM-armed state, further significant investment in strengthening nuclear defense and deterrent capabilities—by both the United States and its Asian allies—would be required. Yet the long-term risks and costs involved in such an approach remain preferable to the near certainty of catastrophe if the United States were to launch a new Korean War without the agreement of those it is committed to protect.
James W. DavisDean of the School of Economics and Political Science at the University of St. Gallen
On the question of a military option, Steve Bannon was right: “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about . . . ”
Apparently, Washington regards both the risks of a nuclear armed North Korea and the costs of launching a preventive strike against Pyongyang as unacceptably high. So solving this crisis is not a matter of applying hard power, but rather smart diplomacy. For diplomacy to work, the United States needs to be clear about what it is asking for: a denuclearized North Korea, a suspension of weapons tests, or an end to the regime’s provocative rhetoric?
Compelling Pyongyang to relinquish an existing nuclear arsenal will be more difficult than deterring the regime from using of a nuclear weapon. But as long as the international community places a higher value on a nuclear-free North Korea than Kim Jong-un demands as compensation for ceding his nuclear capabilities, there is room for an agreement on denuclearization. Such a deal will include both carrots and sticks, the latter perhaps more symbolic than material, and contingent on Pyongyang having first “delivered the goods.”
Paul HaenleDirector at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy
The truth is that there are no viable “hard power” options in North Korea. Attempts to eliminate Pyongyang’s capabilities, or change the regime, would come at catastrophic costs to the Peninsula. Rather, it’s time for China to exercise its soft power in North Korea to create the conditions for a productive dialogue between Pyongang and relevant parties on denuclearization.
While China cannot “solve” the North Korea problem alone, it maintains significant influence over the Kim regime. More than ninety percent of North Korea's trade is with China, and China hosts significant numbers of North Korea laborers, whose remittances help prop up the Kim regime. Moreover, the timing of the sixth nuclear test—just as Xi Jinping was set to open the BRICS summit, his most high-profile international appearance before the all-important Party Congress this October—was no coincidence.
It’s time for Xi Jinping to use China’s economic leverage and influence to pave a path toward a denuclearized Peninsula. Doing so would lead not only to a more stable and peaceful region, but also to a stronger U.S.-China relationship.
Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova Director of the International Organizations & Nonproliferation Program (IONP) at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies
What does “time for hard power in North Korea” actually mean? A preemptive strike to take out the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal? Does the United States (as no other state would participate) have the necessary intelligence to take everything out? How many people—Koreans, Japanese, Americans— would die in North Korea’s retaliatory strike(s)? What would the United States do to prevent, or at least mitigate, a retaliatory strike? Would they attack conventional military sites as well? Would conventional forces be enough to carry out such an operation, or are we talking about using nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945? What would China and Russia do? How would we manage the long-term consequences of a strike, both on the Korean Peninsula and around the world? Does “hard power” mean an all-out regime-changing military intervention? How many millions of lives would that action cost and how many decades of instability would follow? Would the United States develop a Marshall Plan for the Peninsula? Have people calling for “fire and fury” thought these issues through? Given the reality of a thermonuclear and ICBM-armed North Korea, it is time for hard thinking and impulse control in the White House.
Douglas H. PaalVice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The United States has multiple audiences to address in dealing with the growing threat from North Korea. These include the leaders and people of South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, as well as North Korea itself. The short-term requirement to reassure and deter these audiences will be met with deployments of a carrier battle group, attack aircraft, and exercises.
But there is a need to increase relevant leverage of a more permanent variety against the North. This began with a decision to deploy an additional four THAAD antimissile batteries to South Korea for short-range threats. Augmentation of midcourse interceptors will also be required, meaning more Aegis-equipped ships and Patriot missile defense in the region and Japan. The United States will look at whether it has enough interceptors in Alaska and California for intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The United States should look at the model of 1980s Europe, where deploying Pershing missiles against Soviet SS-20s led to a treaty eliminating them. New North Korean developments might shape choices about tactical nuclear and missile deployments today in Northeast Asia.
Finally, again as in Reagan’s day, when the United States greatly stepped up covert action in Eastern Europe, Washington and its allies should examine how to mount covert action against the North Korean regime, even though the circumstances are hugely different.
Jonas Parello-PlesnerSenior policy fellow at the Hudson Institute
It is continuously time for displaying hard power toward North Korea, but not for using U.S. military power preemptively. The United States stands firm on its defense commitments to regional allies, Japan and South Korea (ROK); and THAAD, the joint missile defense system between ROK and the United States, is being speedily enacted. Speaking from the White House, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently underscored that the United States has “many military options” for countering North Korea. Yet a preemptive strike would not be the right use of American hard power and could lead to conflict with massive casualties.
The United States has fewer workable options for genuinely curbing Kim’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions. Tighter sanctions are an option and should be called for. An oil embargo or U.S. secondary sanctions on companies trading with North Korea are the most promising. Yet both options pass through Beijing, whose support is needed for international condemnations in the UN Security Council. China, although annoyed with its troublemaking northern neighbor, will not support strangling the DPRK completely.
The former administration’s strategic patience approach hasn’t worked with North Korea. Yet sudden, unstrategic impatience won’t work any better. The right use of hard power continues to be a strengthened dosage of deterrence and containment by the international community.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
There is not, today, a military solution to the mad, mad, mad Korean conundrum. Geography, geopolitics, and the traditional line of North Korea’s artillery make a preventive strike impossible.
We do not yet know the details of this fast-moving crisis. Military analysts all over the world are baffled by North Korea’s escalation. Who is helping the Korean scientists? Why is Kim Jong-un rushing to new provocations? Is China really unable to restrain a country that is literally surviving on Beijing’s handouts? Is Putin the honest broker he pretends to be, or is he helping Pyongyang behind the scenes to stir the pot?
The United States does not have a clear strategy, but this is not just President Trump’s fault. Clinton, Bush, and Obama also failed to see the North Korean nuclear rush and simply swept the issue under the Oval Office rug.
It’s high time for the United States to rally its allies—Japan, Australia, even Europe—in a strategy of attrition to extenuate the North Korean regime. This strategy will require strength, patience, national unity, and the ability to double cross the enemy while keeping the international coalition together. Instead, Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley are baffled by North Korea’s exploits and China’s silence. Their public tantrums reinforce Kim’s stance and are a parody of a serious American approach. The three generals babysitting Trump— John F. Kelly, James Mattis, and H. R. McMaster—are our best hope today.
Stephen SzaboResident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
Hard power is already being deployed toward North Korea. It is important to remember that under the definition developed by Joseph Nye, economic power is an element of hard power along with military power. Economic power is not always that of carrots, but also of very painful sticks. Clearly, economic statecraft is preferable to military statecraft in the Korean Peninsula. War, even limited war, is in no state’s interest. The current course of sanctions approved by the UN Security Council should continue to be followed. It is no small matter to have both Russia and China agree to this route and Western cohesion depends on the continuance of the sanctions path.
Beyond sanctions, diplomatic efforts need to be enhanced as rhetoric that only threatens an already isolated state is counterproductive. For once, I would concur with Steve Bannon in that the United States should be deescalating its military role rather than increasing it. Do Americans really have a vital national security interest in the Korean Peninsula that risks a nuclear exchange? Negotiations should be opened with the goal of a long-term withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, in return for an acceptable settlement that ends the still simmering Korean War.
Dmitri TreninDirector of the Carnegie Moscow Center
North Korean leaders are brutal and dangerous rulers, but hardly irrational. Since the end of the Cold War, they have been working on a security policy designed to make their regime immune from outside attack. They are not after U.S. promises and solemn obligations—they know that these can be withdrawn at will. What they want is a tested capability to hit U.S. territory. Anything less would fall short of their objective. Thus, it is only logical that they continue testing and reject any deal aimed at their own “denuclearization.” Kim Jong-un is no Muammar Qaddafi.
China, of course, is outraged. Beijing doesn’t need a crisis on its doorstep. But what they want even less is a clash with Pyongyang and chaos in North Korea, all to keep America safe from the DPRK’s deterrent and possibly even see U.S. troops across the Yalu River. Kim knows it and goes on with his program. The United States should drop the illusion that China will protect America from its wayward ally. Washington faces a stark choice—to accept being deterred by North Korea, which is humiliating, or go to war against the DPRK, which would be disastrous for the region, but not just yet for the United States.
Beyza UnalNuclear weapons policy research fellow at Chatham House
First, all options need to be exhausted. This includes convincing China to strengthen sanctions against North Korea, expanding sanctions to new revenue streams, expediting the ballistic missile defense system in South Korea, and deploying military power to deter North Korea.
If the aim is to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, then hard power (meaning limited military strikes against strategic assets, nuclear facilities, and missile launchers) won’t succeed in the long run. North Korea has in-house expertise with scientific know-how and its nuclear program could pick up where it left off. Moreover, North Korea has underground military facilities and its military assets are dispersed across the country, thus increasing the chance of asset survivability in the case of a strike.
Currently, North Korea puts higher value on its nuclear weapons program than the costs associated with it. The only way to change this equation is by increasing the costs while curbing the strategic value of nuclear weapons. The latter is a difficult but not impossible task that requires a security solution on the Korean Peninsula.
A way forward was found on Iran. We need to master the history of arms control and nonproliferation to find resolve this impasse with North Korea.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Hard power in its more sophisticated form is already at use with North Korea. Sanctions have been piling up and undercover action has been tried, though without much success. Tightening the pressure means either the use of cyberattacks or more direct escalation through military strikes. Admittedly, this would only create chaos by stirring retaliation from Kim Jong-un against Seoul, destabilizing the Korean Peninsula, and creating havoc in the whole region.
From that assumption, diplomacy looks like the only game in town. But it needs to be applied genuinely—which has not been the case so far. All current statements about calling on Pyongyang to end its proliferation race and stop its endless violations of international rules miss the point. They will continue to fall on deaf ears as the North Korean leadership is fighting what it considers to be a battle of survival.
The international community must come to grips with this reality. It needs to engage in a meaningful dialogue with less provocative statements and a more palatable narrative for Pyongyang. The time now is to scale down the tension. Discussion on the set of international principles and rules that this new military nuclear reality requires can come later.