The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.
This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.
On June 21. 2017 United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.”  Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.” South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.
But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.
No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.
Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.
Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.
At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.
No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.
This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies. My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.
Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with rogue nations. She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.
These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.
Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.
The tragic passing of Otto Warmbier on Monday, June 19, says a lot about the North Korean system. His case is highly unusual because North Korea tends not to treat its foreign prisoners with physical brutality such that they sustain any permanent injuries. We still do not know what exactly happened to the 22-year old college student during his approximately one and a half-year long detention in North Korea, beginning in January last year. After he was returned to America only six days before his death, Warmbier’s doctors said he had lost a severe amount of brain tissue during his time in North Korea and said that MRI scans showed he had most likely suffered a brain injury shortly after he was convicted to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016. They found no clear signs of beatings, torture, or the like. North Korean doctors claimed he contracted botulism, took a sleeping pill and never woke up, but American doctors found no evidence of botulism.
But whatever happened to Warmbier during his time in North Korean captivity, it is not unusual for people to be treated in inhumane ways by the North Korean system. Even though we know nothing about exactly how Warmbier was treated in captivity, the fact that the North Koreans kept him for so long after his state became life-threatening itself shows a lack of care for humane considerations when political ones are at stake.
For all the jokes that people outside the country crack about its leader and cult of personality, some may forget that North Korea remains a harsh police state. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have been subject to treatment equal to, or worse than, what Warmbier was put through. North Korean labor camps are filled with people imprisoned for actions that would never be considered criminal in any Western justice system, but which the North Korean state deems to be politically offensive, such as smuggling in culture from the outside world. In no other state than a brutally totalitarian one could a young man be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda banner, which is what happened to Warmbier. North Korean authorities claimed that he had conspired together with a church in his home state to overthrow the system of the country, but they offered little evidence.
It is also difficult to discern any strategic logic in the North Korean handling of the case. In the past, North Korea has released several Americans from captivity after high-level visits by American public figures. For example, American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were freed from North Korean captivity in August 2009 (they were originally captured in March the same year) after former President Bill Clinton made a visit to Pyongyang to bring them home. When then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited Pyongyang in 2014, to bring home jailed Americans Kenneth Bae and Todd Miller, he described the disappointment of the North Koreans he interacted with that he was not there to give Pyongyang any diplomatic victories:
“The debate and dialogue started immediately in the car with Mr. Kim,” Mr. Clapper continued. “They were expecting some big breakthrough. I was going to offer some big deal, I don’t know, a recognition, a peace treaty, whatever. Of course, I wasn’t there to do that, so they were disappointed, I’ll put it that way.”
By contrast, North Korea’s mistreatment of Otto Warmbier served the regime no discernable purpose. On the contrary, the impression now is that North Korea did not at all release him on humanitarian grounds, like it claimed, but that the regime simply did not want him to die on their soil. It is difficult to see any North Korean gain in what happened, and meanwhile, the losses are clear. Tourism, a small industry that Kim Jong-un has wanted to nurture, will probably suffer a drop, not least in American visitors. About 5,000 Westerners visit North Korea each year, and around 1,000 of them come from the United States. Since the two aforementioned American journalists were imprisoned in 2009, a total of 14 Americans have been jailed in North Korea. Currently, three remain. Young Pioneer Tours, which brought Otto Warmbier to North Korea, has already announced that they will not take Americans on their tours in the future. It is not inconceivable that the U.S. government will introduce measures to further discourage or outright ban travel to North Korea, like it long did with travel to Cuba (a measure that may soon be reinstated). Each tourist that spends money on a trip to North Korea by extension (since all tour operators inside North Korea are tied to the state) helps fund the regime’s activities, including its nuclear and missiles programs. Some argue that tourism to North Korea can build cultural bridges and foster mutual respect: as an interesting aside, in a show of support of South Korean policies of rapprochement, the U.S. government said in 1988 it would strive to make group travel and exchanges to North Korea by Americans easier.
To this day, however, it is unclear what positive impacts tourism and engagement with North Korea has brought. For long, talks have periodically been held between North Korean and U.S. envoys and both current and former government officials, in unofficial settings. In recent times, they have focused on issues such as American detainees in North Korea, while North Korea has continued its nuclear and missile tests, reaching increasingly high levels of sophistication. American advocates of talks and negotiations with North Korea will face an even more difficult environment after Warmbier’s passing. There has been scattered chatter about the possibilities of a summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Most of it has been founded in naïve hope and mere speculation. Prospects for U.S. government engagement with North Korea seem even more dire now since the White House would be unlikely to want to grant favors to a regime whose treatment of one of its citizens caused the latter’s death.
Perhaps some in the North Korean power apparatus argued for his release far earlier, while more hardline forces refused until his health deteriorated to a point of no return. The North Korean healthcare system is far from any Western standards. At this point, however, all reasoning about the causes for North Korea’s actions are purely speculative. Perhaps, we will only know about the decisions that led to Warmbier’s death if the North Korean secret police archives are opened one day in the future.
Hey mom there’s something in the backroom I hope it’s not the creatures from above What if people knew that these were real I’d leave my closet door open all night I know the CIA would say What you hear is all hearsay I wish someone would tell me what was right – Blink-182 “Aliens Exist”
As Russian President Vladimir Putin aims his country’s missile defenses westward toward an ambiguous adversary, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un chipped a ballistic missile into Mr. Putin’s eastern backyard. On Sunday, 14 May, a North Korean ballistic missile launched from the Paekun-ri (aka Paegun) missile base located northwest of Pyongyang flew 700 kilometers in thirty minutes to land in the Sea of Japan—a mere 97 kilometers from Vladivostok, where Russia’s Pacific Fleet is home ported. The following day, the North Korean government identified the missile as a Hwasong-12, which first appeared in public at a mid-April military parade in Pyongyang. The official Rodong Sinmum news agency issued photographs purporting to show the launch, accompanied by a lengthy statement, which reads in part:
The most perfect weapon systems in the world will never become the eternal exclusive property of the U.S., [Kim Jong-un] said, expressing the belief that the day when the DPRK uses the similar retaliatory means will come. He continued that on this occasion, the U.S. had better see clearly whether the ballistic rockets of the DPRK pose actual threat to it or not. If the U.S. awkwardly attempts to provoke the DPRK, it will not escape from the biggest disaster in the history, he said, strongly warning the U.S. not to disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in the DPRK’s sighting range for strike and that it has all powerful means for retaliatory strike.
The successful launch of the Hwasong-12 is important in and of itself, and also for what it may signify. Some experts question whether two earlier North Korean test launches conducted in October 2016 were in fact part of an intercontinental missile program and not tests of medium-range ballistic missiles.
It bears further consideration that the Hwasong-12 came within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok, and did so at a time when Mr. Putin was in Beijing attending the Chinese government’s “One Belt” (aka “Silk Road”) forum. According to one public report, Russia, only a few weeks earlier, deployed its S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system to the border with North Korea south of Vladivostok.
Russia’s Far East
After Sunday’s Hwasong-12 launch, Mr. Putin said laconically, “There’s nothing good in this.” He elaborated that while “the launch did not pose a direct threat to us, it undoubtedly will further provoke conflict and isn’t a good thing.” He called the test “unacceptable” according to Regnum, continuing, “We need to return to dialogue with North Korea, stop threatening it, and find ways to solve these problems peacefully.”
We are categorically opposed to the expansion of the nuclear powers club, including on the Korean peninsula. We consider [the North Korean missile test] counterproductive and dangerous. On the other hand, so are gross violations of international law, regime change, and promoting an arms race with threats to invade.
The “no direct threat” line was echoed in Nezavisimaya gazeta, which wrote:
North Korea’s missiles fly in unpredictable ways. They do not always impact where their flight guidance system directs them. In principle, they can fall on Russian territory, something that would lead to unpredictable consequences. But Russian air defense and anti-missile defenses are on constant alert. If these missiles threaten our territory, they will be intercepted and destroyed.
It quoted a frequently cited Russian military analyst, Viktor Litovkin, who added:
The fact is North Korea doesn’t target its missiles towards Russia, it aims them toward the Sea of Japan. It therefore doesn’t pose a direct threat to us militarily, though politically, it certainly violates all applicable United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Mr. Litovkin echoed the Russian Defense Ministry, which said, “The missile attack warning system tracked the North Korean missile before it fell into the Sea of Japan. As a result, the Russian military remained fully in control of the situation.” As time progressed, the reported impact spot moved farther from the Russian coastline. The Russian Defense Ministry identified the point of impact as “500 kilometers from the Russian coast,” and some Russian media outlets downplayed its proximity to Vladivostok, for example, electing to use the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Japan-centric identification of the impact point.
Oleg Zhdanov—a politolog or ideologist whose extreme nationalist commentaries appear in publications like Russkaya vesna (“Russian Spring”)—accused the United States of using “North Korea as a pretext” to achieve “their main goal—they deployed a strike group with Tomahawks aboard near the borders of the Russian Federation . . . Russia, in fact, today is isolated. I understand the next step is to declare that Russia is a source of a military threat.” He continued:
On the one hand, while it monitors North Korea, the United States’ Tomahawk strike group continues to blockade the Russian Federation, at the point where all the ballistic missiles located in Russia’s Far Eastern region aimed at the United States are controlled. There are destroyers on the Baltic side, where [the United States] established an aviation-strike force that can fly to Moscow and back with a single aerial refueling. In Poland and Romania, [the United States] deployed antiballistic missile systems and troops, and transferred a tank division to Poland. In Syria and Afghanistan, Russia was given a clear understanding that any military movements would be brutally suppressed by high precision weapons.
Joining in the Kremlin effort to deflect attention from the North Korean missile test, the Russian Federal Assembly’s official Parlamentskaya gazeta (“Parliamentary Newspaper”) published survey findings, which said that while “39% of Russians consider the North Korean nuclear threat to be real . . . The real threat of the use of nuclear weapons, according to Russians, comes from the United States (50%) and al-Qaida (32%).”
With a land border running over 20 thousand kilometers (12,577 miles), Russia today resembles Charles Dickens’ c.1858 description of Prussia:
It is the awkwardest state on the face of the globe. Its breadth bears no proportion to its length, and its possessions are divided from each other by foreign states. She cannot defend her whole line of frontier.
Mr. Putin faces the perennial challenge of defending a largely indefensible border in Russia’s Far East. As far back as 2009, Russia reportedly deployed an S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system near Nakhodka (the red dot on the map above) to counter the then rising threat from North Korean ballistic missiles.
In August 2016, the Russian language news portal Gazeta asked military analyst Mikhail Khodarenok the question “What is the state of Russia’s missile defense?” He responded:
With the completion of the full deployment of the missile attack warning system (including the space echelon) and the adoption of the development-stage AMD A-235 Nudol missile system, Russia will regain the positions largely lost in the 1990s.
Regaining a position lost over two decades ago is useful only insofar as the threat landscape remained largely unchanged. As last weekend’s North Korean missile test makes clear, however, that threat landscape has changed ineluctably.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Putin spoke at the restored memorial cross marking where the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, was assassinated in February 1905 just steps from the Kremlin’s Nikolskaya Tower. Calling the memorial cross a reminder “of the price that had to be paid for disunity,” Mr. Putin said, “We must protect and defend Russia.” Speaking in November 2016, Mr. Putin said he would protect Russia without “indulging in a frenzied military buildup” (predavat’sya militaristskomu ugaru) against threats arising from “the creation of a United States missile defense system in Europe and NATO’s enlargement eastward;” in 2007, Maksim Agarkov assessed that such threats had “drawn [Russia] into an arms race.”
Crashing into the sea less than 100 kilometers from Vladivostok, North Korea’s Hwasong-12 exposed the fatal porosity of Russian missile defenses in the East. Mr. Putin’s pointless commitment to a westward-facing ballistic missile defense has served to emphasize Russia’s wide-open back door. It is a Russian Maginot Line, and an unaffordable one at that.
The national missile defense is our Maginot Line. It would give us a false sense of security and be completely ineffective in countering threats that simply go around it . . . The Maginot Line of national missile defense will not only encourage countries to go around it, or to overwhelm it, it could also become the Trojan Horse that lets our enemies into the nuclear club.
Mr. Putin would have been wise to heed the above warning by Senator Richard Durbin, articulated during a 1999 Senate debate. The false promise of Mr. Putin’s European Maginot Line has been exposed by a single North Korean Hwasong-12 missile flying unimpeded to within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok. Yaroslav Shimov’s claims that “at the moment, Russia is fairly inactive in the Far East, as opposed to Europe, where the opposite is true” is as true militarily as it is politically. Notwithstanding Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s late March declaration that Russia will “complete its air defense system to protect Russia’s air and sea borders” by year’s end—and Russian demands that “North Korea refrain from further provocative actions”—last weekend’s missile test bolsters Mr. Putin’s internal critics, who assert Russia’s “Far East has been left unprotected” behind Mr. Putin’s western-facing Maginot Line.
The translation of all source material is by the author unless otherwise noted.
“Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of New Rocket.” Rodong Sinmum [published online 15 May 2017]. http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/. Last accessed 15 May 2017. According to the report, “A test-fire of new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 was successfully carried out on Sunday by scientists and technicians in the field of rocket research, who are bravely advancing toward a new goal to be proud of in the world, true to the far-sighted idea of Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, for building a nuclear power. Kim Jong Un guided the test-fire on the spot.”
 “North Korea’s 2017 Military Parade Was a Big Deal. Here Are the Major Takeaways.” The Diplomat [published online 15 April 2017]. http://thediplomat.com/2017/04/north-koreas-2017-military-parade-was-a-big-deal-here-are-the-major-takeaways/. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Failed North Korean missile launch was possibly an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.” Chosunilbo [published online in Korean 28 October 2016]. http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/10/28/2016102800238.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “SPOTTED: Putin ‘moves military forces’ to North Korea border as world prepares for WAR.” Express [published online 18 April 2017]. http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/792225/Russia-Putin-North-Korea-nuclear-Trump. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Nichego khoroshego: Putin prokommentiroval novyy raketnyy pusk KNDR.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://ria.ru/world/20170515/1494304896.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Putin: «Nuzhno vozvrashchat’sya k dialogu s KNDR».” Regnum [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2274888.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Putin: Pusk rakety KNDR ne predstavlyal opasnosti dlya Rossii.” Life [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://life.ru/t/новости/1007780/putin_pusk_rakiety_kndr_nie_priedstavlial_opasnosti_dlia_rossii. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Kim grozit obrushit’ mech na golovy amerikantsev.” Nezavisimaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://www.ng.ru/world/2017-05-16/7_6988_kndr.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “V Minoborony Rossii prokommentirovali ocherednoye ispytaniye raket v KNDR.” Tsargrad [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://tsargrad.tv/news/v-minoborony-rossii-prokommentirovali-ocherednoe-ispytanie-raket-v-kndr_63333 . Last accessed 15 May 2017. The missile attack warning system is commonly known by its Russian language acronym, SPRN (Sistema preduprezhdeniya o raketnom napadenii).
 “Vladimir Putin: Pusk severokoreyskoy rakety Rossii ne ugrozhal, no konflikt provotsiroval.” Vladnews [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://vladnews.ru/2017/05/16/127547/vladimir-putin-pusk-severokorejskoj-rakety-rossii-ne-ugrozhal-no-konflikt-provociroval.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 The Japanese Defense Ministry stated that it had “determined the missile fell into the Sea of Japan 450 km from Okushiri Island in Hokkaido Prefecture,” according to Izvestia. See: “Minoborony Yaponii ustanovilo mesto padeniya severokoreyskoy rakety.” Izvestia [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://izvestia.ru/news/706934. Last accessed 126 May 2017.
 For example, Mr. Zhdanov wrote in a commentary published in Russkaya vesna that the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariapol is “mentally prepared” to leave Ukraine and join the DPR,” the latter an acronym for the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic [Russian: Donétskaya Naródnaya Respúblika. Ukrainian: Donets’ka Narodna Respublika]. See: “Mariupol’ i Odessa gotovy vyyti iz sostava Ukrainy, — ukrainskiy ekspert.” Russkaya vesna [published online in Russian 18 April 2017]. http://rusvesna.su/news/1492350071. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Severnaya Koreya blefuyet, — ekspert.” Politolog [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. http://politolog.net/analytics/severnaya-koreya-blefuet-ekspert/. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Rossiyane vidyat ugrozu primeneniya KNDR yadernogo oruzhiya — opros.” Parlamentskaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “The Opinions of Field-Marshal Radfetsky.” Bentley’s Miscellany, v.XLIV. (London: Richard Bentley) 591.
 “Chetvertyy polk S-400 zastupit na boevoe dezhurstvo v Nakhodke.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 August 2012]. https://ria.ru/arms/20120815/724086797.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017. The S-400 is designed to engage aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia deployed its first S-400 system in 2007.
 “Kuda prodvinulas’ rossiyskaya PRO. Kakovo sostoyaniye rossiyskoy protivoraketnoy oborony.” Gazeta [published online in Russian 27 August 2016]. https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2016/08/27/10162349.shtml?refresh. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
Ibid. According to published reports, Russia’s AMD (antimissile defense) A-235 Nudol ballistic missile completed its first successful test flight on 8 November 2015 (the first two test flights failed).
 “Putin prizval berech’ i zashchishchat’ Rossiyu.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 4 May 2017]. https://ria.ru/politics/20170504/1493662148.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Putin poobeshchal zashchitit’ Rossiyu bez «militaristskogo ugara».” Vedomosti [published online in Russian 30 November 2016]. http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2016/06/30/647451-putin-militaristskogo-ugara. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 Cited in Keir Giles (2014). European Missile Defense and Russia. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press) 13.
Congressional Record- Senate (17 March 1999) 4760.
 Yaroslav Shimov (2017). “Politika dvukh maniy.” Inosmi [published online in Russian 12 February 2017]. http://inosmi.ru/politic/20170212/238712546.html. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Shoygu: diviziya VS RF na Dal’nem Vostoke sozdayetsya isklyuchitel’no dlya zashchity Rossii.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/4108902. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Yaponiya i Rossiya potrebuyut ot KNDR vozderzhat’sya ot provokatsionnykh deystviy.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/4108799. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Dal’niy Vostok ostavlen bez zashchity.” Voprosik [published online in Russian 28 March 2016]. http://voprosik.net/dalnij-vostok-ostavlen-bez-zashhity/. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
It seems like we’ve all seen this movie before. North Korea feels affronted and blusters; South Korea and the United States respond with negotiations and a concession or two; China and Russia seek a peaceful resolution (plus the survival of their buffer neighbor); and Japan just wants the problem to go away, which it does—until the next time North Korea feels affronted.
But this time North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has ratcheted up tensions beyond the country’s usual bluster. On March 11 North Korea invalidated its sixty-year armistice with South Korea. And after the participation of two B-2 nuclear-capable bombers during a joint exercise between American and South Korean forces, on March 29 Pyongyang declared a “state of war” between it and South Korea, threatening to strike not only its southern neighbor, but also the United States (nominally Alaska, Guam, and Hawaii, since North Korean missiles can only reach that far). With a modern military of its own, South Korea has vowed to respond if attacked. And, of course, there are about 25,000 American troops stationed in the country, too.
So what strategy should the United States pursue in this latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula? Surely, in crafting its approach, Washington should keep in mind its most important long-term interest in the region which, in my opinion, is the strengthening of the American alliance with South Korea and Japan. That alliance is crucial to counterbalance a rising China and resurgent Russia in Northeast Asia. But to arrive at a practical strategy for this crisis, it is informative to start by considering some strategic extremes and what effect they may have on that alliance:
The United States could advance an escalatory strategy to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot continue to bluster at every perceived slight. And if war comes, so be it. The United States has adequate anti-ballistic missile defenses aboard Navy warships to defend Hawaii and Army air defense batteries could be dispatched to protect Alaska and Guam. Of course, Seoul may not feel as secure if North Korea launches a large-scale conventional attack or nuclear weapons against it; but more likely Pyongyang will take more limited military action. Such an outcome would likely lead South Korea and Japan to further bolster their defenses, though perhaps not with nuclear weapons (unless North Korea uses them first). And a militarily stronger South Korea and Japan could better maintain the balance of power in Northeast Asia, removing some of the burden from the United States.
At the other end of the spectrum, the United States could adopt an appeasement policy—giving North Korea what it wants in exchange for a de-escalation of tensions—and return to waiting for Kim Jong-un’s regime to collapse. While appeasement may not please the American ear, it is an option that would remove the specter of armed conflict and would be practical if one believes that time is on one’s side. Of course, there may be a big knock-on effect: America’s guarantee of extended deterrence would ring a bit hollower in South Korea and Japan (not to mention in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia). Still, South Korea and Japan would likely further bolster their defenses, this time probably with nuclear weapons. In this case, the balance of power outcome in Northeast Asia might still resemble the former, but the level of trust among South Korea, Japan, and the United States would likely suffer.
Ultimately, the approach the United States will take is likely to fall in between the two extremes. The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” is one. It seeks to break the cycle of North Korean bluster by simply waiting for North Korea to back down and seek negotiations without any concessions from South Korea or the United States. Kim Jong-un is now putting that strategy to the test. In the meantime, the United States deployed F-22 fighters to South Korea on Sunday.
However this crisis ends, South Korea and Japan are likely to strengthen their armed forces. In the long run, that should benefit the United States, if it can keep the alliance strong. So, in dealing with this crisis, Washington would be wise not to take an approach without first learning and integrating the views of South Korea and Japan—because not only will they bear most of the consequences (both intended and unintended) of any strategy to deal with North Korea, but also the United States would benefit from avoiding any approach that may create divisions between it, South Korea, and Japan, and in doing so inadvertently weaken the alliance that is so vital for the broader regional balance of power.
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