Mike Dyer is a research assistant at a Washington-based international policy think tank.  He can be found on twitter @mikeysdyer.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  United States’ Options in response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile developments.

Date Originally Written:  July 22, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  July 31, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a senior defense/foreign policy advisor to the Trump Administration.

Background:  After decades of development, for the first time in the history of the Korean conflict, North Korea is nearing the capability to hold U.S. population centers on the continental United States at risk with a small nuclear weapon[1].  Nearing this inflection point requires a reexamination of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Northeast Asia.

Significance:  If North Korea’s Kim regime believes it has an effective deterrent against the United States, it may become emboldened to pursue more provocative and dangerous polices.  Such brinkmanship could lead to disaster.  This new fact threatens U.S. extended deterrence commitments to both Japan and South Korea (Republic of Korea (ROK)), depending on the Trump Administration’s policy response.  The Kim regime, while rational, is certainly volatile, and engages in behaviors well outside of international norms.

Option #1:  The United States accepts the reality of North Korea as a nuclear power while maintaining demands for denuclearization.  This option may require adjustments to U.S. defense posture, namely the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula or the expansion of the ballistic missile defense programs.

Risk:  First, the most salient risk the United States would face is relying on deterrence against a regime for which it lacks an acute understanding.  Relying on deterrence to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula is risky because the Kim regime derives power and legitimacy from propping up the United States and others as an aggressive enemy.

Second, even if the United States does nothing, the Kim regime would still be incentivized to provoke the United States and the ROK if only for domestic reasons.

Third, as previously mentioned, North Korea could work to weaken U.S. extended deterrence commitments by credibly threatening the U.S. homeland.  The United States could work to reduce this risk by demonstrating the effectiveness of its missile defense shield.

Gain:  This option does not risk conflict in the near to medium terms, thus it continues to “kick the can down the road.”  This policy trades tactical and operational risk for increased strategic risk over the long-term.  Otherwise, this option gains nothing.

Option #2:  The United States conducts a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s known nuclear and ballistic missile sites.

Risk:  First, this option risks large-scale retaliation against the ROK and Japan and the U.S. forces stationed there.  There is a significant chance a military strike would miss known or hidden weapons sites or leave North Korea with the capability to deliver a conventional counter strike[2].

Second, a military strike on North Korean nuclear sites is likely to cause an environmental and humanitarian disaster to some degree.  This could result in unnecessary civilian loss of life, increased pan-Korean nationalism at the expense of the U.S.-ROK alliance, and generally loss of support for U.S. leadership/presence in the region.  The illicit transfer of unaccounted for nuclear materiel could also result.

Gain:  If a strike were successful, the Kim regime would effectively be disarmed.  Such a blow to North Korea could lead to a coup against the Kim regime or to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) intervening to stabilize the situation.

Option #3:  The United States increases economic sanctions on the regime to either bring North Korea to the negotiating table or cause the regime to collapse.  This option is not possible without increased support from the PRC a because of its importance to the North Korean economy.

Risk:  First, sanctions need years to take full effect.  During this time, North Korea’s capabilities could grow and the regime would have opportunity to degrade the situation in its favor.

Second, it is unknown what the Kim regime would do if faced with collapse and loss of power.  Some North Korean interlocutors have made the point that North Korea did not build its nuclear weapons only to watch them go unused as the regime collapses.

Third, the regime values security, prestige, and power over a growing economy, it has effective control over its people and they are discouraged from speaking out against the regime even in private.

Gain:  If successful, sanctions have the potential to accomplish U.S. objectives without risking conflict.  Given the Kim regime’s hierarchy of values however, this option is unlikely to work.

Option #4:  The United States and the ROK negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea.  This option accepts the reality of North Korea’s newfound nuclear capability and gives up on past demands for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program prior to peace negotiations.

Risk:  First, for a durable peace to exist between the United States and North Korea, both sides would have to reach a mutually acceptable political solution, this may mean both North Korea and the ROK giving up on their objectives for reunification—something both states are unwilling to do.  Durable peace would also require security for all concerned and trust that does not currently exist.

Second, negotiating peace without denuclearization would weaken the nuclear nonproliferation regime and cause allies to lose faith in United States’ security commitments.  This option could result in greater nuclear proliferation across Northeast Asia.

Gain:  The gain is limited by the risk of failure, but a peaceful Korean peninsula would benefit regional security and ease the burden on U.S. defense commitments.

Option #5:  The United States undermines the Kim regime by encouraging the flow of information into and out of North Korea.  The United States works with the PRC and ROK to encourage the further development of independent (black) markets in North Korea at the expense of regime control on civil life.

Risk:  First, this policy would require years to fully carry out, allowing North Korea to expand its weapons program in the meantime.

Second, this policy may just raise the quality of life of the North Korean people and expand the regime’s tax base while not convincing the people to push-back against the regime.

Third, as previously mentioned, destabilizing the regime raises the risks of conflict.

Gain:  If successful, this policy could chance the character and policies of the North Korean regime, ultimately leading to peace and reconciliation.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Ackerman, S., & Jacobs, B. (2017). US commander not confident North Korea will refrain from nuclear assault. the Guardian. Retrieved 22 July 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/26/north-korea-nuclear-attack-south-korea-us-navy

[2]  Your Bibliography: Peters, R. (2017). A New Approach to Eliminating North Korean Weapons of Mass Destruction Is Needed. Washington: The U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Retrieved from http://www.38north.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/NKIP-Peters-WMDE-062017.pdf  Also see, Bennett, B. (2013). Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse. Rand Corporation.