There are no good policy options for dealing with North Korea, but there are plenty of truly bad ones, argues Mark Fitzpatrick. Close coordination among key stakeholders offers the most promising means of halting Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile pursuit, despite the temptation to engage in tit-for-tat responses.

Photo: N Korea Friendship Association

North Korea’s testing tempo of increasingly powerful nuclear and missile capabilities has triggered no end of alarmist reactions. There are no good policy options for dealing with North Korea, but there are plenty of truly bad ones.

One often-heard view, for example, is that North Korean development of a nuclear-tipped missile that could hit US cities would be a game changer. Politically so, maybe, in that it would belie President Donald Trump’s 2 January tweet that North Korean development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), ‘won’t happen’.

A North Korean ICBM would not be a strategic game changer, however, unless it forced the US to drop its security commitment to Asian allies. Indeed, such a decoupling strategy is a fundamental motivation behind Pyongyang’s pursuit of an ICBM. By holding US cities at risk, leader Kim Jong-un hopes to deter Washington from intervening in the event of resumed hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. The idea is that the US would not trade Seattle for Seoul.

There is little reason to think that Washington would play into Kim’s hand this way. After all, throughout the Cold War the US never wavered in its commitment to European allies despite the hundreds of Soviet ICBMs that targeted US cities. The fear expressed by Charles de Gaulle about US willingness to ‘trade New York for Paris’ was soon overcome.

Nor has the US ever slacked in its commitment to Asian allies despite China’s nuclear targeting with several dozen ICBMs. North Korean initial production of ICBMs would be limited to a handful of systems. And unlike during the Cold War, the US now has missile defences that stand a good chance of knocking down incoming missiles from North Korea. The missile defence system is imperfect, to be sure, but it adds a new element of deterrence by denial to America’s military options.

Kim Jong-un would have to be suicidal to prompt the extermination of his family and annihilation of his state for the small chance of one of his missiles evading US defences. Despite shallow characterisations of Kim as irrational or even crazy, his ability to survive five years at the helm of a ruthless political system proves him to be a cunning realist.

The other reason a North Korean ICBM would not be a strategic game changer is that well-tested shorter-range North Korean missiles can already hit nearly anywhere in South Korea and Japan, including US bases there. But Pyongyang’s claims that its missiles target US bases only makes Washington more determined to step up pressure on the Kim regime.

Nuclear dominoes?
In a 4 May commentary, the usually clear-thinking former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan took Kim’s bait and wrongly concluded that a North Korean ICBM would deter America from coming to the aide of its Asian allies, which would then need to consider arming themselves with nuclear weapons. Picking up on that thesis, Financial Times Asia editor Jamil Anderlini on 24 May argued that unless North Korea collapses, nuclear proliferation in northeast Asia ‘is almost inevitable’.

Hardly. Take the case of Japan, which Kausikan anticipates would be the first nuclear domino to be nudged by North Korea. Similar predictions have been made many times in the past, beginning with Herman Kahn in the late 1960s. More recently, at the beginning of this century several scholars predicted that if North Korea acquired nuclear weapons it would be a game changer that would likely cause Japan and others to follow suit. But every time Japanese strategists have considered the nuclear option, they have concluded that the economic, political and strategic costs are too high, and that Japan would be better off maintaining its US security alliance.  My 2016 IISS Adelhi book Asia’s Latent Nuclear Powers: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan details this history and the demerits of proliferation among US allies.

Anyone who blithely suggests that nuclear dominoes are inevitable needs to consider this history and the cost-benefit analysis that would lead to a fateful decision to ‘go nuclear’. I have summarised the arguments in previous blogs here and here. In short, it would trigger the cut-off of all fuel for that country’s civilian nuclear plants, destroy the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, undermine its security partnerships, and expose it to the risk of pre-emptive attack by adversaries.

Coordination, not provocation
Some commentators have argued for a different kind of nuclear proliferation in response to North Korea’s nuclear pursuit. For example, Stephen Rademaker, former US Assistant Secretary of State responsible for arms control and non-proliferation from 2002 to 2006, argued on 18 May that as an alternative to Seoul itself acquiring nuclear weapons the US as ‘a last recourse’ should re-introduce the tactical nuclear weapons that President George H.W. Bush withdrew in 1991.

Re-introducing US nuclear weapons in South Korea was reportedly among the ideas presented to Trump in a recent National Security Council review of North Korea policy options. It had few supporters, however, because of the many downsides. It would be highly provocative to China and reinforce North Korea’s rationale for prioritising nuclear-weapons development.

In addition to the disproportionate security requirements for such weapons and the target they would present for North Korean pre-emptive strikes, the political cost would be huge. Asking South Korea to again host the weapons would be politically divisive, rekindling anti-American sentiment that has largely dissipated in recent years. The new progressive government in Seoul would surely reject the suggestion. And tactical nuclear weapons would add no deterrent punch to the many other ways that the US can already retaliate against North Korean aggression.

Defanging the North Korean threat will require close coordination among the key stakeholders. There is a need for amped-up pressure combined with a visible ‘off ramp’ should Kim choose it. Meanwhile enhanced deterrence and reassurance to US allies do not require a tit-for-tat nuclear response. Doing so would only make matters worse.

This post is part of the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Voices blog. It will provide a lively mix of news and views from the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, taking place in Singapore from 2–4 June.

Back to content list

Regional Security Assessment 2016

Key developments in Asia-Pacific security

This dossier assesses a range of Asia-Pacific regional strategic, geopolitical, economic, military and security topics.


China's Cyber Power

As China increasingly gains the economic benefits of global connectivity, the West’s technological edge is fast eroding.

armed conflict database

Armed Conflict Database

A regularly updated IISS online resource providing detailed information on more than 70 conflicts worldwide.