Robb: Time to take North Korea seriously

Robert Robb
The Arizona Repubilc
Robert Robb

In response to North Korea’s most recent test of a nuclear weapon, President Obama said the following: “The United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”

What in the world does that mean?

North Korea is already a nuclear state, believed to possess about a dozen nuclear bombs.

And the Obama administration is pretty much accepting it. As did the previous Bush administration, led by a president also given to sweeping but meaningless proclamations.

North Korea shouldn’t be our problem.

North Korea is one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is a military threat principally to South Korea and Japan.

South Korea has twice the population of North Korea and an economy at least 35 times larger. Japan has five times as many people as North Korea and an economy that’s more than 100 times bigger.

South Korea has a military roughly the size of North Korea’s. The military kit of both South Korea and Japan is much more modern and sophisticated than North Korea’s. The military budget of each dwarfs that of North Korea.

In short, South Korea and Japan have the resources and capabilities to handle the regional threat North Korea poses to them. The U.S. shouldn’t need to be involved.

But after the Cold War, the United States left Pax Americana in place rather than unwinding it and leaving other industrialized democracies to provide for their own security. We remain a big presence on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is striving mightily to develop the capability of delivering a nuclear weapon to the shores of the United States.

And so, North Korea and nukes is our problem. What should be done about it?

The conventional answer is to tighten up sanctions to the point that they threaten the regime’s existence. Lock North Korea out of the international finance system entirely. Seize the foreign assets of regime officials. Put in place secondary sanctions against those doing business with the regime, principally in China.

Such sanctions might slow North Korea’s nuclear development, but it is unlikely to end or reverse it. North Korea has already shown a willingness to inflict brutal deprivations on its people to advance its nuclear agenda.

Moreover, regardless of whether China nominally supports a tougher sanctions regimen, it will undoubtedly keep a back door open to keep the regime alive. Currently, what China fears most isn’t North Korea with a nuke and the geopolitical ramifications of that. What China fears most is a failed state on its border.

North Korea is an extortionist regime. North Korea with the capability of hitting the United States with a nuclear bomb is a threat that warrants military action to prevent.

Right now, North Korea doesn’t have the missile technology to deliver such a weapon that far. But it is attempting to develop it.

Developing it requires testing. Sometimes North Korea conducts a clearly military missile test. Sometimes it disguises such testing as for civilian purposes, such as launching a satellite. Many of North Korea’s missile tests fail.

The United States should use its missile defense capabilities to shoot down anything North Korea sends up. It should be our policy to ensure that North Korea never learns whether its missile technology works and whether it, indeed, has the capability of hitting the United States.

China will have a conniption. North Korea, however, has explicitly threatened the United States with nuclear attack and is getting close to being able to do it.  Preventing it from developing that capability is a direct and necessary act of self-defense, worth whatever the cost in relations with China.

The U.S. is already working to improve the missile defense capabilities of South Korea and Japan. Donald Trump was dismissed as crazy and irresponsible when he suggested that they might want to develop their own nuclear capability as well. But opening up that possibility isn’t crazy and irresponsible.

Only China, which provides an irreplaceable lifeline of food and energy, can stop and reverse North Korea’s nuclear program. Right now, it calculates that doing so isn’t in its self-interest. The U.S. shooting stuff out of the air and the possibility of South Korea and Japan going nuclear could change its calculation.

Time is not on our side. We should stop accepting the unacceptable.

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