The U.S. can't rely on China.
Coinciding with Independence Day in the United States, North Korea tested this week what it hopes will eventually become a fully operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Analysts estimate the missile could reach up to 4,200 miles, making it North Korea’s first successful ICBM test, and one theoretically capable of striking Alaska.
This does not yet mean North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un can menace the United States with a nuclear attack, but it is a big step in that direction. Most analysts believe Pyongyang is still a few years away from being able to sufficiently miniaturize its nuclear weapons in order to fit them atop an ICBM. Further, ICBMs leave the atmosphere to traverse across the planet in mere minutes, and ensuring the warhead does not tear itself during a supersonic atmospheric reentry is no easy task.
That said, these hurdles are now merely iterative ones. At this point, North Korea has the basic technological expertise needed to menace the American homeland with a nuclear attack, and all it lacks is practice. Unfortunately, the United States has few options for dealing with this threat, and they all have serious downsides.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently described a military solution as likely being “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” North Korea’s nuclear facilities are hardened and deeply embedded in the country’s highly mountainous landscape. Any precision strike campaign would be unlikely to meaningfully disarm Pyongyang of its nuclear capabilities, and would almost certainly provoke a deadly retaliatory attack. Tens of thousands of American troops and many millions of South Korean civilians are within range of North Korea’s conventional artillery, and many more—including U.S. troops and allies in Japan—would be vulnerable to Pyongyang’s short-range missiles. If the Kim government felt its survival was at stake, it would surely deploy its existing stockpile of nuclear and chemical weapons, with horrific consequences.
Indeed, the North Korean regime has loudly signaled that it does view its nuclear weapons as critical to its survival. That is what makes any such military solution implausible, and any negotiated solution unlikely. A nuclear guarantee that the United States and South Korea will find invasion and regime change prohibitively costly is too valuable to trade away, and the two are unlikely to be able to offer anything to change Pyongyang’s cost-benefit analysis.
That leaves, for lack of a better term, containment. The United States has been using displays of force and joint exercises with South Korean allies to deter future North Korean misbehavior. But Washington must also use whatever tools it can—such as sanctions and international isolation—to pressure Pyongyang against further development of its program. Unfortunately, most of those tools run through China.
After some initial optimism by the Trump administration, however, China is again demonstrating that it is unwilling to meaningfully coerce its neighbor and only ally. While Beijing may disapprove of the Kim regime’s destabilizing nuclear brinksmanship, the only thing it wants less is the alternative.
China’s means of influence over North Korea are blunt ones. Kim Jong-un has banished or killed Beijing’s former interlocutors in Pyongyang, and the only effective tools China has left are the food, funds, and fuel it supplies its neighbor. Interrupting these flows enough to change North Korea’s behavior could also be enough to destabilize the North Korean government. A regime collapse would likely result in a North Korean refugee crisis, an eventually unified Korea under Seoul’s control, and American troops perilously close to China’s border. There is nothing President Trump can say that will change Beijing’s logic; North Korea’s regime survival is more important to them than almost any nuclear sabre rattling it might pursue.
As a result, the United States will need to engage in a particularly creative combination of diplomacy and coercion. Because 90% of North Korean trade runs through China, any new effort at sanctions will likely involve inflicting increasingly harsh penalties on Chinese firms—which is unlikely to win the Trump administration any new friends in Beijing. Simultaneously, in pursuit of deterrence, Washington will need to win support for more displays of force from a skeptical new government in Seoul. Threading these needles will be difficult, and will require seasoned diplomats and experts—the kind this administration has so far been egregiously slow to staff.
Six months ago, Trump took to Twitter and assured Americans that under his watch, a North Korean nuclear ICBM threat “won’t happen!” Unfortunately, it did happen, and it is unclear what the administration’s plan is to mitigate this threat. Whatever the eventual solution, however, it is unlikely to fit in 140 characters.
Harry Krejsa is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.