North Korea's Latest ICBM Test Highlights America's Flawed Strategy
More pressure will not change the current situation. Kim Jong-un views nuclear weapons as essential for his regime’s survival. Short of a complete shut-down of North Korean–Chinese economic activity—a move China is unwilling to take—economic pain will be uncomfortable but not existential for Kim and he will hold onto his nuclear weapons. Sanctions may slow down the development of new ballistic missile and nuclear weapon technologies, but this would not considerably improve the strategic picture for the United States now that North Korea has conducted several successful ICBM tests. Moreover, a statement released after the latest ICBM test suggest that North Korea is capable of manufacturing important technologies indigenously, which further insulates the weapons program from sanctions. Applying “maximum pressure” in the pursuit of denuclearization is nothing more than a flawed strategy chasing a chimerical goal.
Washington needs to use the ICBM test as an opportunity to reevaluate its strategy, set new goals, and develop new plans of action. Denuclearization is a noble goal, but it is not achievable in the short term and it should not be used as a precondition for direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea. Militarily, the United States should work to reduce the risk of crisis instability and escalation. Freezing B-1B bomber flights out of Guam would have little negative impact on America’s ability to deter North Korea and could be a useful opening point for negotiations. Militarily, the United States should eschew threats of trying to kill Kim Jong-un early in a war or disarming Kim of his nuclear weapons. Both of these threats place strong “use it or lose it” pressure on North Korea and increase the chances of a small incident spiraling out of control.
The latest test of an ICBM reinforces the cliché that there are no good options for North Korea. It is difficult to see how a military conflict to tear down the Kim regime wouldn’t go nuclear quickly, and even if the conflict stayed conventional it would be a great catastrophe for all parties involved. Denuclearization is a chimera and war would be a nightmare. Trump needs to learn how to deter and live with a nuclear North Korea.
Eric Gomez is a policy analyst for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.