Memo to Trump: Contain North Korea, Don’t Attack It

When it comes to Donald Trump’s foreign policy goals in the Asia-Pacific there is only one phrase you need to know: North Korea first.

Nothing else—at least in the short term—matters.

Despite all the talk over the past few years about China’s rise to power and glory—which has fueled tensions over the South China Sea, Taiwan, the East China Sea, and now hundreds of billions of dollars in trade issues—North Korea has eclipsed all this and become the dominant national security challenge in the Asia-Pacific today.

But what will Trump’s North Korea strategy look like over the months and years to come? There are only two paths he can follow—a military option of some sort or containment. And in the coming days, as Trump heads to Asia, we’ll have a good sense of which one he’s going to choose. In fact, it stands to reason that one of the primary goals of this trip is to build consensus for whatever direction Team Trump has decided to go.

To get a better sense of what Trump is thinking, let us consider for a moment these two choices. The first, what the Trump administration is broadly threatening to do, what is being called the military “option,” is terrifying. It would likely involve some sort of targeted strike on Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program in the event Kim does not denuclearize, which the regime has said it will never do, and which would run up against the North Korean constitution where nuclear weapons are enshrined.

The military option could even go all the way to full-scale war—and hell on earth. Such a conflict would most likely mean regime change, along with the forced removal of North Korea’s between 12 and 60 nuclear weapons, over 1,000 missiles, chemical weapons, and potential biological weapons, followed by trillions of dollars in investment to rebuild North Korean society, which could take decades. Oh, and don’t forget, it could also lead to a possible showdown with another nuclear-armed power: China.

There is, however, a better path. The second option is essentially what we are doing now, which is containment. That means economic, diplomatic, and financial containment, and more broadly deterrence with potentially some sort of negotiation in the future. This is what I have been arguing for the past several months in various formats and publications, as the costs of war—even just a limited strike—are much too high. Just one kinetic strike could spiral into a conflict where the death count numbers in the millions, something many North Korea and national security experts are taking far too lightly.

Now, to be clear, containment is an imperfect policy. But it’s also the best option we have.

The good news when it comes to containment is that we already know what North Korea’s Achilles heel is: its rickety economy, worth something like $14 billion—before illegal activities—which is 1,000 times smaller than South Korea’s economy. While we may not have good tools for rolling back North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs (short of war), we can certainly impose enough economic, diplomatic, and financial pain to make any further progress very expensive.

The bottom line is that while people here in Washington continue to say that we are almost out of time to “deal” with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, I would argue we are out of time. What we are dealing with today is a 2017 version of the Sputnik moment we encountered 60 years ago with the Soviet Union. We are shocked that a regime as horrific as North Korea has such capabilities (although we shouldn’t be because the technology of nuclear weapons and missiles originated decades ago). But just like every other time an adversary developed nuclear weapons—whether it was Stalin’s Soviet Union or Maoist China—we decided containment and deterrence were the best options. I hope we do so again.

Just for the sake of argument, we need to look into the abyss at what our military options are, and why most experts and even casual observers regard them as lousy choices that would open the ultimate Pandora’s box.

So let’s consider just a targeted strike, one in which the goal is to destroy only Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons and accompanying missile launchers. This poses some big obstacles for some obvious reasons.

First, you need to know where all the nuclear weapons are. As one senior Pentagon official told me, verified by others on background, “We don’t know where all the nuclear weapons and missiles are. Period.”

That’s a big problem to overcome.

Even if you were to launch the most devastating military attack, deploying large numbers of cruise missile-carrying submarines, aircraft carrier battlegroups, stealth aircraft—and assuming North Korea did not launch a preemptive strike first when it saw such a buildup—there is a very high probability we wouldn’t completely destroy Kim’s nukes.

Second, what if our allies don’t agree? This is a potentially big roadblock. Keep in mind, if North Korea were to respond to such a strike, it would be our allies South Korea and Japan that would get the worst of it. They would, we can assume, be against a military strike—unless they or U.S. forces were attacked first.

Third, how would Kim respond? Here is where things get fuzzy, as we don’t really know the answer to that question. He could, for example, launch counterattacks on Seoul with artillery—he has thousands of artillery tubes, MLRS, 200,000 special forces, and so on. He could attack with his arsenal of cyber-soldiers, many of whom are not based in North Korea, according to recent reports. Or he could use whatever nuclear weapons he has left on Seoul or Tokyo, or maybe even U.S. bases in the Asia-Pacific. Or, who knows, maybe he’d try to attack Los Angeles or Seattle. Millions of Americans right here in the U.S. homeland could lose their lives thanks to Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal.   

Fourth, and a key point: would China or even Russia respond? While relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are not exactly warm and fuzzy these days, China does, for obvious reasons, have big interests on the Korean peninsula. Chinese officials I’ve talked to on countless occasions have said they hate the status quo, but would rather see its continuation than a path that could lead us to war. Russia’s interests are smaller, but they still have a vast territory to protect in Northeast Asia, and they will of course be very concerned over any kinetic actions on the Korean peninsula.

Sometimes the hardest choices in national security and foreign policy are those not to act—those to take the longer but more viable path. When it comes to North Korea, containment is America’s only option to box in and slowly grind down Pyongyang to the point that it will seek some sort of diplomatic settlement with Washington. No one is saying that path will be easy, but war with a nuclear-armed North that has nothing to lose is no option at all.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Previously, he served as editor of The Diplomat, a fellow at CSIS, and on the 2016 Ted Cruz foreign policy team.

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