Here is part 6 of 7 in my discussion of U.S. policy options for a nuclear North Korea
Option 4: Containment and Continued Deterrence
This option implicitly recognizes the fact that America, its allies and the international community have been and will remain unable to end the DPRK’s nuclear program, short of war. It therefore prescribes a wide ranging policy of deterring and containing North Korea using different instruments of power, both hard and soft, with a view to either the eventual collapse of the North or its giving in to international demands. The first part of this strategy is a military buildup, for which there are many options. U.S. forces in the ROK would be reinforced and we would work trilaterally with Japan and South Korea to coordinate and strengthen our land and sea based missile defenses. Other choices include a combination of the following: deploying an additional carrier group to the region, deploying more U.S. nuclear submarines in the area and more long range bombers in Guam. In consultation with Seoul, the U.S. may choose to revert to strategic ambiguity regarding the presence of nuclear weapons on ROK soil and publicly declare that Pyongyang would face nuclear retaliation should it use WMD.
Aside from the military aspects, this policy would aim to bolster the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) by increasing interdictions, plugging legal loopholes and bringing more countries on board on a permanent basis. Containment would also escalate sanctions against the DPRK, firstly targeting the DPRK itself as well as international companies and financial institutions doing business with it. It would furthermore call for a partial to total cut off of U.N. food aid, an end to remittances from Koreans abroad and suspension of all energy supplies to the DPRK. Lastly, the United States would engage in a concerted effort to highlight the North Korean regime’s repressive policies, lack of freedom and democracy and abysmal human rights record. This would be especially important in Europe where it would resonate more and potentially lead to increased support for U.S. measures.
This policy would achieve many U.S. objectives in the short term. Such a wide ranging policy would highlight and reinforce U.S. commitment to the region and the credibility of American security guarantees to our allies. While the NPT would still be damaged by the DPRK’s withdrawal in 2003, this policy would clearly support the treaty and illustrate the consequences of withdrawing and pursuing nuclear weapons. It would also deter a military confrontation and increase international and domestic pressure on the North Korean leadership to negotiate. A hastening of regime collapse could be another possible outcome but this is very difficult to measure and should not be counted on. Lastly, increased U.S. forces in East Asia would conveniently serve a double purpose of containing and deterring North Korea while also projecting power towards China and preventing any expansionist tendencies there too. While this could upset Beijing, it may also lead it to put real and effective pressure on the DPRK to avoid an increased American military presence in their neighborhood.
What this policy would not immediately do is end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Indeed, while it may hasten the DPRK’s collapse, it would allow continued development of their program and of more weapons, albeit under increasingly difficult circumstances. While ramping up pressure and increasing PSI interdictions is unquestionably positive, there is no absolute guarantee that it would prevent all instances of weapons or technology transfer, especially if important countries like India and China remain uncooperative. On top of this, it cannot be ruled out with 100% certainty that Pyongyang can be deterred forever, nor that the increase in pressure wouldn’t lead to a North Korea preemptive strike out of pure desperation. The U.S. military build up involved would also be costly, particularly with in light of ongoing deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The response of our regional allies as well as North Korea’s neighbors could also possibly turn against us. South Korea and Japan currently have little appetite for confrontation and prefer policies of appeasement and accommodation. Although the costs of China’s support for North Korea may finally become too high, this policy does risk reinforcing China’s support for the DPRK and reluctance to do anything endangering the status quo. Also, increased sanctions may have some effect on Pyongyang but short of China’s cutting off all or most of its energy supplies to the DPRK, it is hard to imagine them affecting a country which has no regard whatsoever for the welfare of its citizens and that is already one of the most isolated in the world. Countries both in the region and elsewhere may see things similarly and be unwilling to support further sanctions which would cause the death of thousands and potentially millions of already oppressed and undernourished North Koreans.