On the Brink of War: The Latest on the Situation with North Korea

“Do not look at the flash or fireball — it can blind you,” a note from Guam’s Joint Information instructed the public last Saturday. “Lie flat on the ground and cover your head. If the explosion is some distance away, it could take 30 seconds or more for the blast wave to hit.”



Guam Homeland Security and Office of Civil Defense released a two-page fact sheet on social media and its website after Pyongyang announced a that it would launch four Hwasong-12 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) near the US Pacific territory of Guam. The announcement for the launch came after Donald Trump threatened to meet them with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” later stating that the US military plans were “locked and loaded.”



North Korea made strides this year in their missile testing program; they are now testing heat shields in order to protext their nuclear warheads from burning into flames during its descent into the Earth’s atmosphere. The test on July 28th marks the fifth test this year, evidence that the United States has yet to slow progress of their nuclear weapons program with economic sanctions. The possible emergence of a belligerent nuclear power in a region so close to American allies moved President Trump to place North Korea as the United States’ top national security priority.



Twitter tirades and violent rhetoric have moved Chinese to urge Trump to show restraint, claiming that such comments would worsen the situation.



Saber-rattling and weapon demonstrations aside, what are the viable options for the United States? Every administration in the past can claim defeat considering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea, but putting North Korea as a priority to American Security is the right start according to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in an article in Foreign Affairs.



Haass summarized three of the only options the United States has when dealing with Pyongyang: acceptance, military intervention, or diplomacy.



Acceptance would mean conceding to the reality of a nuclear North Korea. With acceptance, we’d rely on deterrence to keep Pyongyang from employing its nuclear threat. This would also ensure a Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) scenario in which security is only guaranteed by the total annihilation of both parties. The United States would thwart that competitive edge with its THAAD system, which shoots down incoming missiles, but the risk of failure would be too great.



Accepting a nuclear North Korea would deliver a blow to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and would serve show other states that creating nuclear weapons is possible. This could snowball as North Korea would then have the ability to sell its technology to both state and non-state actors in order to aid its own domestic economic strife. Because North Korea would gain nuclear capabilities, Japan and South Korea may aim to seek nuclear defensive capabilities of their own as well, due to the fact that the United States allowed North Korea to possess its own nuclear weapons.



Military intervention could be either preventative or preemptive. Preventative would mean the destruction of a gathering threat while the preemptive option would mean acting on an immediate threat. This solution could lead to many obvious consequences. The first of which, Haass calls the “huge leap into the unknown,” by which he means that the United States would have no idea how the North Koreans would react or what kind of resistance American forces would meet from the North Koreans. The conflict would have to be quick, decisive, and most importantly limited. Regime change would not be a possibility in order to not sink into a Vietnam or Iraq-like quagmire of partisan warfare against the people. Another major issue is the fact that Seoul is within conventional artillery range beyond the demilitarized zone. Parts of the capital would have to be evacuated. China would also be forced to intervene depending on the speed of the conflict, fearing losing its buffer zone between it and South Korea and the fear of a possible North Korean refugee crisis.



The last option, diplomacy, is the one Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are employing now. The US would, no doubt, have to offer incentives such as ending the long-standing Korean war and offering a movement toward diplomatic recognition. However, concessions may not be a proper solution as aid has been given as a concession before while Pyongyang failed to uphold its end of the bargain.



The two secretaries now look to China, North Korea’s only ally. Earlier this month, China voted into place a new package of sanctions against North Korea, however, Tillerson and Mattis feel that this is not enough. North Korea must be completely isolated, including by its lifeline trade partners, which also includes Russia. In order to push China into leaning on North Korea, President Trump would have to make concessions in order to maintain good relations with Beijing.



Today, diplomacy seems to be the option with the least amount of risk. Efforts have been made in the past, however, and last month’s tests demonstrate how little the US has to show for them. President Trump will have to exhibit his utmost flexibility with Xi Jinping in areas such as the South China Sea and other trade negotiations in order to gain good will and a China dedicated to helping the United States secure the Korean Peninsula and thus the United States and its allies.

Anthony Francisco