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A nation must think before it acts.
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.