After North Korean missile test, US scrambles to avert 'catastrophe'
A U.S. diplomat said Wednesday that the Trump administration is preparing to present the United Nations with a resolution that will serve as a proportionate response to North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test.
“If we act together, we can still prevent a catastrophe,” said Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
She urged the international community to work together to cut off North Korea’s access to foreign currency and trading partners if leader Kim Jong Un continues to pursue nuclear weapons. She noted that much of the responsibility for enforcing sanctions lies on China and warned that the Chinese risk their profitable trade with the U.S. if they do not do so.
“We will not have patience for stalling or talking our way down to a watered-down resolution,” Haley said, though she did not offer any details of what the planned resolution would contain.
Analysts believe the intercontinental ballistic missile tested Tuesday had the capability to reach Alaska, marking the first time North Korea has demonstrated that it can strike the U.S. Still unknown is how close its scientists are to figuring out how to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and attach it to a missile.
“It’s only a matter of time until they put all of those pieces together,” said Collina, policy director for Ploughshares Fund, a non-profit devoted to nuclear nonproliferation.
Kim taunted President Donald Trump—who vowed on Twitter before he took office that he would never allow North Korea to develop a nuclear weapon that can reach the U.S.—calling the test an Independence Day “gift” to the president.
“It was clear that they were moving in the direction of a long-range missile capability,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. “That is and has been their goal.”
So far, the Trump administration has responded to the missile test with harsh rhetoric and new joint military exercises with South Korea. While a show of force is a typical response, the deterrent effect is blunted at this point.
“It’s a face-saving thing to say that we did something, but it ratchets up the tension,” Collina said.
The president often says he does not like to telegraph his strategy, but experts say the advanced state of North Korea’s weapons program severely limits his options. Military action could spark a war that would result in massive loss of life.
“There’s no such thing as a limited war with North Korea. They know they have to use everything or lose it,” said Melissa Hanham, senior research associate for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry and other experts recently wrote a letter urging Trump to rely on diplomacy, warning a U.S. military strike would open up South Korea to potentially devastating retaliation. In 2006, Perry had recommended President George W. Bush bomb North Korea’s missile site if launch preparations continued.
Current administration officials cautioned that an armed conflict is very much a possibility, despite the likely human cost. Haley said Wednesday that the U.S. will use its “considerable military forces” to defend itself and its allies against North Korea if needed.
“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” said the commanders of U.S. and South Korean forces in a statement following the test.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said a war with North Korea would be “catastrophic” and “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
According to several nonproliferation experts, reviving diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang is the Trump administration’s best option, and quite possibly its only viable one.
“There is no military solution to this,” Collina said.
Ideally, the goal is to dismantle the North Korean nuclear program, but at the very least, he called on the Trump administration to redouble efforts to reach an agreement that halts research before Kim is able to fire nuclear weapons at U.S. soil.
“The test tells us that the need for diplomacy is even greater than it was before, that the window is closing,” Collina said.
Diplomatic talks would likely occur in stages, and China and Russia have proposed starting with a joint freeze of North Korean research and U.S./South Korea military activity. They have their own reasons for wanting that, but Collina said an agreement like that may be necessary to build trust.
This sort of phased negotiation was essentially how the Iran nuclear agreement was hashed out, but the approach may not be as effective with a country that has a far more advanced nuclear program.
“There are very few options and none of them are very good, and I think that’s why the U.S. has dragged its feet for so long,” Hanham said.
While North Korea refused to meet U.S. preconditions for diplomacy over the last decade, its scientists have been advancing their research. Bringing the regime to the negotiating table now could prove costly, but allowing that research to continue will only make matters worse.
“They would try to extract a very high price,” Hanham said. Pyongyang has a track record of cheating on agreements in the past, though, so strict verification procedures would be required.
Throughout his campaign, the president frequently insisted that China can resolve the North Korea crisis and he would pressure its leaders to do so.
“I would get on with China, let China solve that problem,” he said at the first presidential debate. “They can do it quickly and surgically. That’s what we should do with North Korea.”
Once he took office, he continued to lay responsibility on Beijing, at one point announcing that he was violating his campaign pledge to declare China a currency manipulator because he wanted its help with North Korea.
After meeting with China’s president, however, Trump acknowledged that the situation was “not as simple as people would think.” His recent tweets suggest he may be rethinking his approach, and he has at times indicated openness to solving the problem unilaterally.
“So much for China working with us,” the president tweeted, recognizing what Collina said experts already knew.
“We can’t outsource this to China,” Collina said. “They’re just never going to do it.”
Although China has considerable leverage over North Korea, only the U.S. can provide the concessions Kim’s regime desires, including sanctions relief, military de-escalation, and a peace treaty.
“China at this point has all the sticks, so we need them to start using them,” Bell said. “We have lots of carrots.”
While the conflict with North Korea has often served as a useful distraction for China, Beijing has no interest in Kim actually obtaining nuclear weapons. Chinese leaders also fear a new Korean war across the border and the consequences if Kim’s regime is toppled in the conflict.
“We, especially in the U.S., deeply underestimate the humanitarian disaster that would be a collapsed North Korean state,” Hanham said.
It may even be worse than the devastation and migration seen in Syria, which had superior health and education systems before its civil war. The flow of refugees from the underdeveloped country could cause chaos in South Korea and China.
The more optimistic possibility is that South successfully unites with a freed North, a scenario that is also unappealing to the neighboring Chinese.
The final option, according to Collina, is that North Korea does successfully develop nuclear weapons but fear of U.S. reprisal prevents them from ever using them. While Kim is often seen as crazy, he said the regime is ultimately very rational in its focus on self-preservation.
“Part of the story here is that people need to calm down and relax,” he said of the successful missile test. “It doesn’t mean that they’re going to attack us.”
One thing Trump has made abundantly clear is that he does not want to continue the Obama administration’s approach to the problem. Much less clear is what he intends to do instead.
Ambassador Haley emphasized that desire to break with the past on Wednesday.
“We will not repeat the inadequate approaches of the past that have brought us to this dark day,” she said.
Trump and other administration officials have repeatedly vowed that “the era of strategic patience is over,” but experts are unsure what that means in practice.
“Saying that is not a plan,” said Bell, former director of strategic outreach for the State Department’s arms control and international security office under Obama. “From all appearances, their approach thus far has been to kind of do the same thing that was done before.”
She added that the current lack of U.S. ambassadors in the region—including in South Korea—and vacancies in key State Department positions may be handicapping the administration’s ability to formulate a new strategy or deliver a clear message.
“This is a terribly complicated situation and that requires having the best experts and skilled negotiators and leaders in place and ready to go. There’s nothing stopping the administration from fully staffing their departments,” she said.
North Korea is already claiming that it will never put its weapons programs up for negotiation, a stance that could scuttle or at the very least complicate diplomatic efforts if Pyongyang sticks to it. It is just the first of many hurdles the Trump administration will face if it does attempt to return to the bargaining table and broker a peaceful resolution.
“Will it be easy? Absolutely not,” Bell said. “Is there a better option? No.”