For 25 years, America has sought to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of one of the world’s most brutal regimes. We worked to ensure that North Korea would never have the ability to launch a nuclear warhead that could reach the American homeland. Those efforts have been unsuccessful, and now judgment day is at hand.
How we answer this challenge will make the difference between war and peace and likely define America’s place in the world for generations to come. To do nothing invites future aggression, and to do too much can usher in a global catastrophe. There is a way forward out of this dilemma, somewhere between Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” and Donald Trump’s threat to bring “fire and fury” into an already volatile situation.
First, we must come together here at home. Building a broad national consensus on reversing the North Korean threat to America will be essential in demonstrating to allies and our adversary that American resolve is not to be questioned and American leadership is steady. In this instance, Congress has a chance to lead, fulfill its Constitutional responsibilities and redeem itself in the eyes of many Americans.
Just weeks ago the U.S. Congress voted on a bipartisan basis to take the steering wheel out of Donald Trump’s hands on when sanctions against Russia can be lifted. Congress knew our relationship with a resurgent and aggressive adversary was too important to manage without Congressional advice and consent. So it is with the crisis of the rogue regime in Pyongyang threatening American cities with nuclear destruction. Congress should convene a bipartisan team of leaders from its national security committees such as Armed Services, Intelligence and Foreign Relations, to meet for the purpose of developing a comprehensive plan of action to end the North Korean nuclear threat.
Unfortunately in the race between war and peace, the clock is now against us. North Korea continues to perfect its nuclear weapons and missile programs, President Trump is not known for his patience and Congress is not known for its speed. What are the options for a situation in which there are “no good options?”
First, we need to strengthen our defensive positions to protect our allies and ourselves against the launch of a North Korean missile. We should intensify the deployment of missile defense systems in the western pacific and make it the stated policy of the United States that any unannounced missile launch from North Korea will be subject to being shot down.
Second, we should work with allies in the region to create a surveillance ring around North Korea, so we have a clear a picture of their intentions and capabilities. This should become priority one for the Director of National Intelligence. We can offer to work in tandem with allies and leave the door open to limited Chinese cooperation as well.
Third, we should develop a detailed Reconstruction Plan for North Korea in the event of the fall of the Kim Dynasty. China does not want the instability that comes with millions of refugees pouring across its border and South Korea will need help re-integrating the north into the modern world. The U.S. can bring together a global coalition to plan out the day after the Kim regime falls. This will demonstrate our commitment to the people of the region and help the Chinese imagine a world without Kim Jong Un, thus making it easier to get them to shut off the resources fueling North Korea’s nuclear program.
Fourth, we need a sustained diplomatic effort to hold the global coalition together that imposed tough sanctions on North Korea. Our diplomats should talk without pre-conditions to North Korea and explore offers of diplomatic recognition and normalized relations if the North gives up its nuclear and strategic missile programs. While the nature of the North Korean regime is loathsome, America’s main strategic objective must be removing the threat posed by just such a regime having nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States.
Last but not least, we should intensify active covert measures designed to disrupt and degrade the North Korean nuclear and missile programs as well as develop wedges between North Korean elites and Kim Jong Un. The day may come when freezing the North Korean political and military leadership in place in time of crisis can prevent uncontrollable escalation.
I’d like to hope that President Trump would make all the right moves in this the most complex and sensitive international crisis and his first. Hoping for that but not counting on it, I encourage Congressional leaders to come together, step forward with a plan and work closely with Secretaries of State and Defense and other responsible parties. If we are successful, it will be a chance to come together at home, demonstrate responsible American global leadership and become the crisis that never was.
Scott Bates was Senior Policy Advisor for the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, President of the Truman Center for National Policy, and taught at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Bates has taught at the University of Tokyo and met with national security officials across Asia. He lives in Stonington, CT and currently serves as Connecticut’s Deputy Secretary of the State.
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