We have isolated North Korea. I kept worrying that the Bush administration would succumb to the allure of a deal with North Korea. They did not. And the Obama administration has--to my shock, I must admit--avoided making a deal with the hideous regime.
Yet China until recently has provided a key life line that has allowed North Korea to endure.
And now North Korea's march to getting nuclear missiles is getting closer to reality:
The top North Korean official for U.S. relations told The Associated Press on Friday that his country is now a nuclear threat to be reckoned with, and Washington can expect more nuclear tests and missile launches like the ones earlier this week as long as it attempts to force his government's collapse through a policy of pressure and punishment.
So talking while North Korea dies may not work in time.
The problem with sanctions as that if they get bad enough, the target nation may see them as acts of war equivalent to military actions taken against them.
If North Korea truly gets long-range nuclear missiles before they collapse, America may have to launch a military campaign to destroy North Korea's nuclear and missile infrastructure to keep them from nuking us or Japan (or South Korea).
This decision to strike North Korea will strain the alliance between America, South Korea, and Japan.
This is because only America and Japan will have an incentive to strike North Korea.
South Korea has long been vulnerable to the destruction of Seoul, their capital (including the surrounding region) and home to half of South Korea's population, from North Korean conventional artillery looming north of the DMZ. North Korea wouldn't need to use even their chemical arsenal to inflict a lot of death and destruction on Seoul.
A nuclear strike by North Korea would be much worse, but the conventional response by North Korea would still be horrible for South Korea even if the nuclear disarming campaign is fully successful, protecting America and Japan from North Korean strikes.
So while American and Japan have an incentive to prevent a new threat from developing, the South Koreans have an incentive to let the nuclear threat ride to prevent the destruction of Seoul and hope that the future provides another way out of the security threat.
That might be the opening for China to get South Korea's agreement on China staging a pro-Chinese coup in North Korea.
That would be bad for South Korea, Japan, and America. But least bad for South Korea if the alternative is risking a conventional, chemical, or nuclear attack on Seoul.
Yet the new nuclear threat to Japan and America would compel us to act. Japan, I imagine does not also want to be the second nation to endure a nuclear strike on top of being the first (in 1945, twice).
And we don't want to be vulnerable to North Korean nukes nor do we want to be seen as failing to protect Japan from a nuclear attack given our responsibility for the 1945 strikes (which were justified, I hasten to add).
Yet Japanese-South Korean relations are rough enough given Japan's horrible colonial record. If Japan participates in strikes, that will be tough on our security relations if South Korea retaliates against Japan by cutting defense ties and restoring anger.
So it would be up to America. We have the bulk of the power to hit North Korea anyway, so I wouldn't ask Japan to take part in the strike campaign.
Japan should instead deploy their anti-missile defenses to protect Japan and South Korea, while preparing their military to support South Korea if North Korea looks like they will retaliate against South Korea.
And we'd have to warn South Korea so they can prepare to strike (with our help) North Korea artillery and to move north of the DMZ (with our troops helping in that joint division) to create a no-launch zone to protect Seoul.
No doubt, we would risk straining American-South Korean relations by such action. The worse the death and destruction in Seoul, the more South Koreans will be angry with us for taking actions to provide safety against a theoretical danger to our cities that inflicted actual danger to their primary city.
Japan can insulate themselves a bit by staying out of the strikes, but the South Koreans will know that Japan shared our objective and so relations between South Korea and Japan will take a hit, too, if not as much as South Korea's relations with America.
And China (and Russia) will rejoice at the damage done to the alliance structure in northeast Asia.
Although that joy in Peking might be tempered if South Korea in time responds to pushing America (and our nuclear and conventional umbrella) away by building their own nuclear deterrent.
And American failure to strike North Korea could weaken our defense ties to South Korea and Japan. As long as we do not face a North Korean nuclear strike capability, our promise to use nuclear weapons to defend South Korea and Japan is easy for us to make. What happens when our use of nukes against North Korea to defend these allies could result in North Korea hitting Los Angeles?
Our alliances with Japan and South Korea could fray from that alone, no?
And maybe both decide that they need their own nukes in case we shrink from risking Los Angeles to protect Seoul or Tokyo.
One thing might promote allied unity while ending the North Korean threat: a US-South Korea-Japan regime change mission--but one that stays well away from the Yalu River to minimize the risk of war with China, too.
Would South Korea decide this is the least bad option in the face of North Korean nuclear threats?
Things could be very difficult relatively soon if North Korea's nukes win the race with collapse.
UPDATE: China seems to be squeezing North Korea:
Following North Korea’s latest nuclear test, in January, trade over the China-North Korea border dropped dramatically, according to newly released satellite imagery. The revelation has led experts to conclude that Beijing has been quietly punishing Kim by cutting off the flow of funds to his regime.
Which is good. Whether this is the result of our diplomacy or Chinese fear that South Korea and Japan will arm up to dangerous levels to cope with North Korea (and possibly go nuclear) is the question.