Editor’s Note: Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is a national security analyst on a number of global conflicts. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Anthony H. Cordesman: The US must accept that threatening "fire and fury" is not a practical military option in North Korea
Instead, the US should devote resources to building up its own military deterrence and that of its allies, Japan and South Korea, he writes
It is easy for the US and North Korea to posture and threaten – for North Korea to carry out nuclear and missile tests and for the US to conduct B-1B bomber and F-35 flights and military exercises.
It is equally easy for the hopeful and the well-intentioned – and nations on the margin of events, such as China – to call for negotiations or believe that some form of dialogue will lead to conflict resolution and change North Korean behavior.
There is always hope that someone else will solve the problem: China, the UN, South Korea or the somewhat mythical “international community.” US military experts can continue to search for preventive options – or any option that will avoid triggering a process of mutual escalation leading to a major military exchange or war.
And the US should seek to negotiate and continue to demonstrate its commitment to its East Asian allies. But it is becoming all too clear that the US may well have to accept the reality that to threaten “fire and fury” is not a practical military option, and there probably won’t be any miraculous change in Kim Jong Un’s behavior.
At a minimum, he will soon nuclearize the Korean Peninsula and be able to threaten all of Asia, or at least as far as Japan and Guam, with nuclear weapons. In one to two years, he will have a reasonably credible capability to fire a missile with enough accuracy and reliability to carry a nuclear warhead so far as to strike a major city in the West Coast of the continental US.
At that point, North Korea will not only have fully joined the nuclear club, it will have become an active threat to America.
The key question is: What will the US do about it? One step will be to leave no doubt about the US commitment to deterrence and US willingness to respond to any North Korean nuclear blackmail or use of such a weapon. The US must make it clear that it will deploy a decisively destructive nuclear option to strike North Korea – one capable of effectively destroying the country.
It must provide convincing “extended” nuclear deterrence to cover South Korea and Japan, and may well have to decide to either reintroduce modern US theater nuclear weapons, or smaller nuclear weapons designed to be effective at battlefield targets, to South Korea, or accept a South Korean nuclear force.
There must be no possible seam in the structure of deterrence, and both North Korea and its biggest trading partner China must fully understand just how strong the US retaliatory commitment is.
The US also needs to work with Japan and South Korea to give them the most advanced missile defenses possible – both ballistic and cruise missiles – and to create all of the elements to make US missile defenses as effective as possible.
It must reassure Russia and China that they do not need to expand their forces to maintain a credible deterrent to the US. The US must also deal openly with Russia and China’s concerns about the US missile defense systems it can deploy in the region.
It should also phase the deployment of such capabilities and commitments in ways that are responsive to each new step of the North Koran nuclear and missile buildup, while both working closely and openly with South Korea and Japan and repeatedly stating that it will not seek regime change in North Korea or to displace China’s interests.
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Here, the irony is that US military strength and credible actions to build deterrence may be the best approach to real-world negotiation and arms control. If there is any chance at all in moderating North Korean behavior, it lies in Chinese and Russian pressure on Kim.
Threatening trade wars is not going to help – tangibly confronting China and Russia with a whole new set of nuclear risks in their backyard just might, and showing that the US is acting out of grim necessity may ease the risk that some future nuclear crisis will escalate beyond North Korea to include China, and even Russia.