Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Our North Korea Options

So what are our options with North Korea?

We can basically accept a nuclear North Korea, try to squeeze North Korea, change the regime to one that doesn't want nuclear weapons, or attack North Korea to destroy their nuclear weapons capabilities. But no option is guaranteed to work. And remember that failing to take action is as much of a decision as taking action.

Option 1: Accepting a nuclear North Korea.

This could either be with negotiated limits on their nukes or without. Sometimes doing nothing works out. The plan would be to deter North Korea as we have with the Soviets and the Russians.

The safety net would be missile defenses (American, Japanese, and South Korea) that would at least guard against an accidental launch and potentially stop an attack if not reduce the lethality.

Could it work?

Sure. If by working you mean that North Korea continues as a nutball state that kills and oppresses its people. And if you mean giving North Korea a shield behind which they can commit even more against South Korea, secure that any response by South Korea or America could be met with nuclear escalation. But sure, maybe North Korea never uses nukes. Maybe in time the North Koreans tire of the expense of nukes and decide to get rid of them as no longer useful. Ukraine did (and possibly regretted it after Russia invaded and annexed portions of their territory). Khazakstan did. South Africa did. Maybe North Korea will, too. And maybe one day decades in the future the North Koreans reform into a less horrible regime.

Heck, basically doing nothing might work if some black swan event comes along to spare us from the problem.  Maybe Kim Jong-Un slips and falls in the bath tub and dies. Maybe some revolutionary technology is developed that makes nuclear warheads obsolete. Maybe an earthquake destroys Pyongyang. Maybe Kim literally gets religion and recants his evil path. Maybe an asteroid slams North Korea. One can't rule out the world will get lucky.

What could go wrong?

North Korea might want nukes to use them on South Korea and Japan, holding out some to deter American nuclear counter-attacks, believing the resulting chaos and American retreat will deliver South Korea to North Korean control.

North Korea could decide to use nukes out of fear that America is about to use nuclear weapons against them. It doesn't matter if we are planning such an attack if North Korea believes we are. After all, they say we've been plotting to invade them for over 50 years now.

Just how good will North Korea's early warning system be? If they have any? Just what would trigger a North Korean launch, anyway? Who in that North Korean launch chain will be the one to say "I'm not sure if nukes are heading our way. Let's wait."?

North Korea might accidentally launch a weapon.

South Korea and Japan may go nuclear, unsure if America will risk Seattle for Tokyo or Seoul.

Vietnam and Taiwan may follow as long as someone else went first to deter China.

China will increase their own nuclear forces in response to a regional nuclear proliferation.

The cost of maintaining vigilance around North Korea for decades will be considerable.

North Korea might invade South Korea under the theory that their nuclear weapons are a safety net in case of failure which will deter America from leading a counter-attack north of the DMZ.

North Korea could sell nuclear technology or actual weapons to dangerous states like Iran under mullah nutballs. (Which means that destroying the Iranian nutball regime to take a dangerous customer off the board increases the chance that this option could work.)

Consider too that over several decades of deterrence there is some small chance that over time there will be a significant chance that North Korea will launch a nuke by accident or by mistake. And if proliferation takes place there will be more places that error or accident could happen.

And of course, on the last part, we probably won't get lucky in a dramatic fashion. That fact is why it would be lucky if something happened.

Option 2: Try to squeeze North Korea.

We could squeeze North Korea with economic sanctions. Perhaps with a land, sea, and air blockade.

Could it work?

Probably not. Even if you reduce your goals to squeezing North Korea until they allow limits on their nuclear arsenal and industry rather than pushing North Korea to get rid of their nukes. But who knows? I can't rule it out. But North Korea has impoverished itself to get nukes. What added misery could the world add to persuade North Korea to abandon their long effort made already?

What could go wrong?

North Korea has such a low level of economic activity that reduction would seem perhaps insignificant.

It is unlikely that China and Russia would go along at all; and if they do it is unlikely they would do it for long. China especially doesn't want refugees flooding into China so would have an incentive to breach the wall of blockade for humanitarian reasons. And once open, corruption will widen it. Oil-for-food, anyone?

Will we shoot down planes with civilians or sink ships going to North Korea? Will we board and risk an incident like Israel experienced with the Palestinian ambush of their boarding party sailing from Turkey?

Will North Korea manage to sink a blockading ship with a sub or a surge of planes on a suicide mission?

Over time, sanctions would fail. Again, see Iraq and oil-for-food. See Iran with continued nuclear-relate purchases. North Korea will have "dead baby parades" the way Saddam did to blame all deaths on the sanctions. Many in the West will believe this. Will Russia fail to join the chorus of dismay?

And if economic sanctions are actually effective contrary to all expectations, there is always a risk  that the North Koreans will decide that the effects of sanctions are little different from actual war (and at some level, blockades are acts of war) and so will respond by bombarding Seoul or otherwise using military force.

Or maybe North Korea views harsh sanctions as a speed bump. Perhaps they agree to comply (or more likely agree to negotiate to comply, and then the talks drag on (and then cheat after the world's attention and sanctions fad.

Finally, North Korea might be so close to working nukes that they ignore even crippling sanctions and so get nukes anyway.

Option 3: Change the Regime.

Regime change could either be from a US-led invasion and/or a Chinese invasion or a coup led by pro-Chinese elements in North Korea. (I won't even hope that pro-American elements exist.)

Could it work?

Sure, changing the regime before it gets nukes is the gold standard. Iraq after Saddam for all its problems has not been a WMD threat. Libya after Khaddafi--notwithstanding his deal to give up nukes--can't backslide and resume WMD programs any time soon.

And even an invasion that halts before regime change might convince North Korea to give up nukes. That basically happened in 1991 to Iraq after Desert Storm.

What could go wrong?

North Korea might be able to bombard Seoul with conventional, chemical, or even biological weapons before the invasion or coup shuts that down.

North Korea might have nukes. Our ability to determine their status with that much precision and that much confidence is limited. I've mentioned that problem of only acting if the nuclear threshold passage is "imminent" is an impossible standard. So North Korea might launch nukes during an invasion or coup before every nuclear launch site is locked down. Yes, we and our allies would have our defenses up--from F-35s patrolling over North Korea, to ship-based missile defenses, to land-based longer-ranged or point defenses bolstered by evacuations of likely targets--but something could still get through.

The coup or invasion could result in state collapse requiring massive occupation costs.

The regime's supporters might wage a guerrilla war despite the oppression they've endured.

If the invasion is successful the post-war and post-regime costs would be extremely high.

If America leads the attack, China might consider that too much of a threat and intervene on North Korea's side resulting in a fight with America, leading to risks of a more general war if China doesn't disguise intervention as yet another "volunteer" effort much as China did in 1950 and as Russia has claimed in the Donbas since 2014 or if we don't go along with the fiction of no Chinese involvement.

If China leads the attack it could falter because China isn't as good as America and the South Korean militaries. If North Korea responds by hitting Seoul or Tokyo notwithstanding the Chinese invasion, America and our allies would have to quickly pull together a military option less effective for not being long planned and prepared.

If China sponsors a coup, it might fail reducing Chinese influence after the purges even more, making American-led military action more imperative but with the coup attempt telegraphing military action.

If the coup is successful, China might take the opportunity to move their own forces to the DMZ and increase the threat to South Korea even more.

Option 4: Attack North Korea's nuclear facilities.

The attack could be "surgical" aimed only at known nuclear weapons and facilities. Or it might require expanded attacks that include air defenses, conventional artillery and rockets, naval forces, command and control, and logistics facilities.

Could it work?

Yes. It worked for Israel both in Iraq in 1981 when Israel destroyed the French-built nuclear reactor and with Syria in 2007, where North Korea was building a secret nuclear reactor. And it arguably worked with America's Desert Fox campaign in 1998 against Iraq. An American-led strike campaign against North Korean nuclear infrastructure might take out all the facilities and even if some are missed, defenses could shoot down the odd surviving missiles launched or planes that take off with nuclear warheads.

What could go wrong?

Keep in mind that the attacks on Iraq and Syria were against nuclear facilities much less deeply entrenched and widely spread. And before actual nuclear detonations. The knowledge base for theory and production is much wider in North Korea than in Iraq or Syria back then, so the survival of the people who built that infrastructure will allow a more rapid rebuilding. Keep in mind that Iran's more widespread nuclear facilities and knowledge base may have deterred an attack on Iran in favor of accepting a horrible nuclear deal that pretends to stop Iran.

So we might not know about where everything is in North Korea. North Korea might be able to launch missiles or send off planes with nukes that might get through defenses despite being under attack.

North Korea could launch conventional, chemical, or biological attacks on Seoul that do a lot of damage before being shut down even if we knock out all the nukes.

Any smaller strike option could be too little to work, requiring an escalation that starts to get China worried about where the escalation stops--and which takes more time giving North Korea time to launch something. For example, what if we think a stealth-only attack followed by cruise missiles is enough for a narrow range of missions on nuclear facilities and weapons yet find that isn't enough; then adding non-stealthy planes will require hitting air defense sites. And perhaps the rest of the target list to preclude North Korean counter-measures.

And if we go big, China might worry it looks an awful lot like the prelude to a red line-crossing regime change invasion. China might intervene on North Korea's side in that case.

North Korea might silently endure the attack campaign. Would we know if it worked? Would North Korea wait a few months and then launch a nuke when conditions (like bad seas that keep Aegis-equipped ships in port) are better?

Would North Korea simply rebuild their nukes quietly this time? After all, they've done the nuclear tests and know the design works. They could rely on Iran to refine warhead work. With no bombast and no more nuclear or missile tests to signal nuclear status, what do we do? Do we then begin a never-ending bombardment campaign against North Korea as we did over Iraq between the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War? Will China and Russia really support that?

If so, costs and diplomatic hits go up and we risk having an aircraft shot down over North Korea and losing the crew or having North Korea capture them.

Does such an open-ended campaign work or does North Korea use it when they can rather than risk losing their new nuke.

Does North Korea decide post-strike to give Iran or some other bad actor nukes to spread our attention out and possibly to get revenge? 

So here we are.

We have no good options. Just more and less bad options. Yet I can't even say with high confidence which one is the least bad.

And letting the problem go until today has made our options worse in some ways (increased North Korean nuclear capabilities that are harder to destroy and easier to rebuild if destroyed) but better in others (increased Western intelligence and missile defenses plus decreased North Korean conventional capabilities).

Past presidents from Clinton to Bush 43 to Obama failed to act and here we are with President Trump having to make the decision about what option is least bad and hoping for the best while trying to cope with things that go wrong.

This is stream of consciousness so I might have missed something obvious. Even something I've mentioned before but forgot to include here. Or I may lack sufficient imagination or information to figure out what we or North Korea might do.

I'd like a happy ending to this story but that seems unlikely regardless of what we do.

Have a super sparkly day.

UPDATE: The progress of North Korea's nuclear drive.

It took a long time to get here and North Korea doesn't have far to go, but the danger has long been evident while we did nothing and hoped for the best.

Not that doing nothing was obviously the wrong choice. Sometimes things do resolve themselves or make the choices better. Given the problems of doing something, I was in favor of "doing nothing" (talk, talk, die, die).

And to be fair, over the time we "did nothing" our missile defenses were created, the North Korean conventional military rotted away, South Korea's military strengthened, and American forces were pulled back from vulnerable positions on the DMZ.

So our military options are far better now than in the past. Although we "did nothing" for about a year or two too long, it seems.