North Korea’s once-unthinkable nuclear and missile capabilities are, as long as the country wants, here to stay.
With each North Korean nuclear or missile test, American officials go through a ritual that appears increasingly at odds with reality.
They declare that they will not tolerate the rogue programs they have demonstrated little ability to slow, much less remove. They organize more of the talks or sanctions that have failed to alter North Korea’s strategic calculus. And they issue threats that, if carried out, would either change little or risk an all-out war.
But the best that Washington can hope for, analysts and former officials increasingly say, may be to freeze the program in place. Even this would most likely come at a steep cost, a grim recognition both that the threat is severe and that American leverage is limited.
“The window for denuclearization closed a long time ago,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, wrote in a column this week.
The threat can be managed, he continued, only by “accepting the unacceptable” as a hard fact of life.
North Korea has achieved this through more than just missiles and bombs. By exploiting the dynamics of nuclear warfare and diplomacy, this otherwise weak country, whose economy is estimated to be smaller than that of Birmingham, Ala., can dictate terms to the world’s most powerful country.
North Korea’s Asymmetrical Advantage
The United States now faces the hostile end of a nuclear deterrence model it was the first to develop.
In the early years of the Cold War, with American-allied West Germany facing down an overwhelming Soviet threat, the United States promised any attack would prompt nuclear retaliation.
It worked, deterring the Soviets even from an invasion of West Berlin that it could have completed in a matter of hours.
North Korea may have achieved a similarly effective deterrent. Though it would quickly lose any war, it could impose unacceptable costs on South Korea, Japan and potentially the United States.
North Korea has developed certain technologies that, taken together, demonstrate something analysts call “asymmetric retaliation,” with which it can guarantee a nuclear response to any attack.
Its medium-range missiles can hold South Korea and Japan, where tens of thousands of American troops are based, at risk. Special canisters allow the missiles to remain pre-fueled, shortening launch time. Track-driven mobile launchers can hide in remote locations, forcing American war planners to doubt that strikes could eliminate all such missiles before they are launched.
A missile submarine, while believed to be the only such vehicle in North Korea’s modest navy, increases the country’s odds of landing at least one retaliatory strike.
As a result, any conflict, even limited, would require the United States to be willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives and far more South Korean lives. Both countries are prosperous democracies — normally strengths that, up against the more risk-willing North Korea, become weaknesses.
The country’s recent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile could put parts of Alaska in range as well.
While analysts are unsure whether to believe North Korea’s claim that it has miniaturized nuclear bombs, allowing them to be placed on missiles, any American president would have to weigh the potential risk to Anchorage’s population of 300,000, roughly equivalent to all American military casualties in World War II.
The Terrible Logic of First Strikes
There is another force working in North Korea’s favor, known as “first-strike instability,” in which both sides must fear that any exchange, however small, will escalate to nuclear launches.
In the Cold War, this kept the United States and the Soviet Union locked in a comparable balance of power. On the Korean Peninsula, it does something otherwise impossible: It puts North Korea on equal footing with the United States.
North Korea’s strategy makes clear that even a limited strike, either to eliminate its weapons or its leadership, would prompt a full retaliation.
Because North Korea sees the weapons as its only hope for survival, losing them risks provoking the country’s fears of a full invasion or an effort to topple the government. And because Pyongyang believes it can survive such a threat only by retaliating, its incentive is to do so before it is too late.
The United States’ overwhelming strength is, paradoxically, also a weakness. North Korean leaders must consider even a limited strike or accidental escalation as the start of a war they could lose within hours, virtually forcing them to immediately execute their full war plan.
This constrains American options. Even a single strike — for example, to destroy a missile or merely to punish the government — risks provoking a full war
This has held for decades. In 1969, when North Korea shot down a United States Navy plane, killing 31, the Nixon administration chose not to respond, fearing that North Korea would misperceive any attack as the start of a war. This logic has held as the stakes have grown.
Still, United States policy toward North Korea could always shift, particularly under President Trump, who considers unpredictability an asset. While it is difficult to foresee an American option that overcomes these risks, that does not prevent Washington from trying.
An Underlying Political Problem
In other such standoffs, military risks can be reduced by addressing the underlying political causes. Iran, for instance, was persuaded to surrender components of itsnuclear program in exchange for integration into the global economy, which it saw as a more desirable way to secure its future.
North Korea’s political problems may be beyond amelioration.
“It is the regime’s awareness of a pending legitimacy crisis, not a fear of attack from without, which makes it behave ever more provocatively on the world stage,” B.R. Myers, a North Korea scholar at Dongseo University in South Korea, wrote in a 2010 book on North Korean ideology.
The country’s greatest threat is not American power but South Korean prosperity. Pyongyang’s official ideology of race-based nationalism requires describing the Korean people as one nation, temporarily divided.
But South Korea’s stronger economy and freer society leave the Pyongyang government with little reason to exist. Ending hostilities would risk a German-style reunification that would subsume the North under South Korean rule.
Only a perpetual state of near-war can stave off reunification while justifying the North Korean state. And only nuclear-armed missiles can make that standoff survivable.
No amount of American power or will could impose a threat that North Korea will see as costlier than destruction nor offer an incentive more valuable than survival.
A Symbolic North Korean Victory
William J. Perry, a former secretary of defense, said in January, “It is my strongly held view that we don’t have it in our power today to negotiate an end to thenuclear weapons program in North Korea.”
Rather, he said, the United States should aim to “lessen the danger” by seeking an end to missile tests.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, this week advocated something known as “double suspension.” The United States would suspend its military exercises with the South while the North would suspend its nuclear and perhaps missile tests.
There has been a broader shift toward such thinking. The ambition is no longer to roll back North Korea’s programs, but to mitigate the risk they pose day to day.
This is a tacit acknowledgment that North Korea’s preferred negotiations model — in which the United States takes steps away from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for peace — is increasingly accepted.
Even if North Korea never achieves its vision of full victory, it has shifted the conversation to its terms.
Mr. Fitzpatrick and others say that the United States should pursue such steps only if they point toward North Korean disarmament, but some consider this optimistic.
Ankit Panda, a senior editor at The Diplomat, and Vipin Narang, a professor at M.I.T., wrote this week that there were “no good options” for the United States, “only bad ones and catastrophic ones.”
Any viable deal with the North Koreans, they suggested, “would require explicit acceptance of their nuclear state status and significant rollbacks to the U.S. conventional military presence in the Northeast Asian theater, both of which are nonstarters for the United States.”
The likeliest outcome, they concluded, is that the world’s nations “learn to live with an ICBM-armed North Korea.”
In theory, this could mean a tenuous nuclear stability, much as in the Cold War. But historians say the Cold War’s pattern of near misses, given enough time, could eventually have sparked an unintended war.
Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor and occasional mediator between the United States and North Korea, was asked this week on the BBC program “Newsnight” to rate his optimism on a scale of one to 10.
“I’m at about a three right now, and it’s dwindling,” Mr. Richardson said. “I’m worried. I’m really worried.”