Well, it’s finally happened. After years of threats by North Korea and warnings by US administrations (both Obama and Trump), North Korea finally managed to develop and launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4. For those who don’t know what an ICBM is, it’s a guided missile (usually with a nuclear warhead attached, but it could just as easily be conventional or some other type of WMD) with a long enough range that it can hit a target on… well, another continent.
Unsurprisingly, the international community has responded negatively to this missile launch, with US President Donald Trump having angrily tweeted about it as well as having US forces conduct joint military exercises with South Korea as a show of force. China and Russia, the two countries with the closest relations to North Korea, have also called for it to freeze its nuclear program (though it’s likely that they won’t actually do anything to seriously punish Kim Jong Un and his government if they choose to ignore these warnings). The UN Security Council is supposed to hold an emergency meeting in order to discuss possible actions in response to the missile test (likely the imposition of additional economic sanctions to pressure North Korea into freezing its program, which has not been a successful approach so far). Some people might find these reactions somewhat puzzling – after all, North Korea launches test missiles on a fairly regular basis now, particularly into Japanese waters. So what, they may wonder, makes this latest missile launch so serious?
On its own, the missile launched by North Korea doesn’t seem that dangerous, since estimates so far would suggest its maximum range would only extend as far as Alaska, rather than the rest of the US (admittedly, this probably doesn’t provide much comfort to Alaskans). What’s important to note, however, is that North Korean missile tests have led to the capabilities of their weapons gradually increasing. So while this recent test doesn’t seem to be a particular threat to the US, it does indicate that North Korea is getting closer to being able to do so.
One thing that remains unclear at present is whether or not North Korea is capable of building a nuclear warhead that is small enough to actually be launched on a missile, which tends to be the hard part. The North Korean government, naturally, claims that the ICBM it launched is capable of not only carrying nuclear warheads, but also hitting the mainland US. I’m inclined to disbelieve the former claim, given how evidence suggests that North Korea’s nuclear weapon program hasn’t progressed enough to achieve that kind of miniaturization yet.
While the ICBM test has raised tensions between North Korea and just about everyone else even further, it’s unlikely to cause significant changes in the situation for now. As I mentioned earlier, North Korea’s ICBM doesn’t seem capable of hitting the vast majority of the US yet, and it’s unlikely that it can actually be used for nuclear weapons just yet.
The main issue at present, then, is the fact that North Korea is capable of attacking not only South Korea, but Japan as well (given that most of its missiles are being launched into the Sea of Japan, it’s likely that they can also be used against major Japanese cities as well). North Korea’s conventional weapons alone would be sufficient to devastate large parts of South Korea, including Seoul, to say nothing of its apparent stockpiles of chemical weapons. While the North Korean military is likely to ultimately lose in a conventional war against its South Korean counterpart (even before considering the support it would get from US forces), any conflict between the two would likely lead to millions of people being killed. This means that South Korea and Japan essentially serve as hostages for North Korea in case the US decides to use force to eliminate its nuclear arsenal or to decapitate its leadership. Furthermore, simply trying to launch attacks against suspected weapons stockpiles and missile locations is highly risky at this point, since the locations of weapons (especially the unconventional ones) aren’t 100% certain. As a result, any attempt to destroy North Korea’s arsenal could potentially fail and lead to the retaliation described above.
So what can be done about North Korea? The military approach doesn’t seem to be viable even without North Korea being capable of directly retaliating against the US, since it would result in massive casualties for everyone involved. If nuclear weapons end up being used, South Korea and other neighboring countries will end up suffering from the fallout (literal and otherwise), so the US probably won’t go that route (unless the Trump administration takes its America First mantra even more literally and completely ignores the interests of its allies). It’s increasingly clear that sanctions don’t work for a number of reasons, including the simple fact that North Korea is almost totally reliant on Chinese support and will continue to obtain it so long as it continues to serve as a useful buffer state. Talks aimed at denuclearization probably won’t happen, since the Trump administration has explicitly ruled out engaging in talks unless North Korea agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Such a condition is almost certainly seen as too high by the North Korean government, as it considers nuclear deterrence essential to its continued survival (which is admittedly an accurate assumption considering its relationship with South Korea and the US and how outmatched it is). Denuclearization might happen if South Korea stopped hosting American forces and conducting joint exercises, but that would mean leaving itself vulnerable to North Korea, making it equally unlikely.
The only option available that won’t immediately cause massive loss of life, then, is simply accepting North Korea’s nuclear program and engaging in mutual deterrence (ideally without more countries in the region obtaining nuclear weapons to defend themselves). This is ultimately the least terrible of several bad options, however, since it doesn’t do anything to resolve the problem in the long-term or help defuse tensions. In short, there aren’t any good options when it comes to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program: virtually every possible option either makes the situation worse or has been shown to be ineffective in the past. Hopefully, the Trump administration has considered this and was only bluffing when it stated it would be willing to use force against North Korea’s nuclear program (although who knows anymore?).
Mark Haichin is a PhD student with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.
This article was originally published on Mark’s Policy Musings