US and South Korea: A Show of Force, But Running Out of Options?

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US troops rendering honors to the Republic of Korea Navy destroyer (ROKS). Photo: US Navy/flickr

North Korea’s third nuclear test provided the ideal opportunity for the United States and South Korea to respond with their own displays of military muscle. Two days after the test, South Korea showcased a cruise missile that Seoul claims can hit targets anywhere in the North. This month was also the first time in almost two decades that an American nuclear submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles entered South Korean waters.

Thus, the endless cycle of North Korean provocation, joint military drills and verbal war continues. Yet it remains difficult to find to find good analysis on next steps that need to be taken to address the impasse on the Peninsula.

Prominent South Korean blogger, ImPeter, for example, argued against [ko] preemptive strikes against the North’s nuclear facilities, a strategy that the Defense Ministry recently labeled the ‘kill-chain’. Instead, Seoul needs to develop a better backup plan than simply to relying on the “nuclear umbrella” provided by the United States. ImPeter also claims that even though South Korean anti-ballistic missile systems are improving, there is still a significant margin of error that could have deadly consequences:

There are just so many uncontrollable factors in a war that cannot be predicted even with careful consideration of all the data we can pull together. Once our predictions fail, the damage could be catastrophic […] When North Korea forged ahead with its nuclear tests, all the media repeated that South Korea could launch preemptive strikes [on North Korea’s nuclear weapons]. But they never mentioned the possibility that these strikes could fail and lead to more serious consequences—- perhaps all-out war.

Indeed, commentators also warn that no matter how strongly the U.S. and its allies apply pressure on Pyongyang, the North has enough artillery (without nuclear weapons) to strike and cause considerable damage to Seoul.

Migukin on Asia Pundits discussed the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula:

Now, for me, the biggest question is why in the world would the North start a war to begin with? The only thing I can think of is once they get a few nuclear weapons and they feel comfortable that they have the ability to hit the U.S. with them, they may feel that is their ultimate failsafe. That’s the thing that really worries me. That the North is close to no longer being a “rational actor” and that once they feel they can actually strike the U.S. with a nuke that they will attack the South thinking they might actually be able to pull off unification on their terms.

I could see something like this happening: China finally gets fed up with the North, stops giving them food aid and the North goes crazy, lashing out in frustration. (Another scenario I’ve heard of is the North would do artillery barrage on Seoul then just stop, feeling they had made their point.)

Based on such gloomy predictions, the denuclearization of North Korea, a major topic for decades, now seems to be a dim and distant prospect. Indeed, South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak has reportedly abandoned hope of denuclearization, an opinion held across the international community. In a post for the Royal United Services Institute, Edward Schwarck and Andrea Berger argued:

The difference this time around, however, is that the North’s nuclear programme may no longer be negotiable […] In recent years, engagement has had a nuclear focus. But Pyongyang’s change in rhetoric over denuclearisation suggests this may no longer be a feasible approach for the West and its allies. […] Pyongyang has intentionally borrowed the West’s own rhetoric to highlight a double standard that nuclear weapons states will find it difficult to argue with. Logic propounded by the North Korean regime is shared by Washington, London, and Paris: a nuclear-armed state seeking to guarantee the security of its citizens must retain a credible deterrent so long as others continue to possess nuclear weapons.

James Acton for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggested a more subtle approach of shifting the focus from denuclearization to nonproliferation.

While periodically bribing Pyongyang to suspend missile and nuclear tests may slow the program, the North Korean regime appears to have concluded that nuclear weapons are simply too vital to its own survival to trade them away[…] The United States should not formally renounce the policy of denuclearization or publicly “accept” North Korea as a legitimate nuclear-armed state. However, it does need to refocus its efforts on more attainable goals: deterrence and nonproliferation. Plans by the United States and its allies to deter North Korea are relatively advanced. By contrast, while the challenge of stemming proliferation from North Korea has not been entirely ignored, it has not attracted anything like the attention or energy it merits.

Acton advises the United States to consult with relevant countries, especially China, on curbing the pace of North Korea’s nuclear development and to have more talks.

North Korea’s controversial nuclear program will make ripples in political, military and diplomatic circles for the foreseeable future. But time is running short for South Korea and the U.S. to face North Korea with good cards in hand.

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