What to do with North Korea

It’s official: North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test this morning, defying warnings from the UN, US, and its neighbors. North Korea’s tested weapon was small by nuclear weapons standards, and its missile systems are inaccurate, but the test confirms that the world’s most dangerous weapons technology is now in the hands of Kim Jong-Il.  So what can the US and the world do now to prevent tragedy at the hands of a madman? Let’s review the options:

  1. The US could launch a preemptive air strike against North Korea to destroy its nuclear devices. If successful, this would almost certainly result in conventional war with North Korea. If unsuccessful, North Korea could nuke South Korea or Japan, killing millions.
  2. The US could try to cut off all economic support for North Korea. While the US may now be able to convince South Korea and Japan to cut off aid, China fears the collapse of North Korea and the subsequent flood of refugees more than the regime itself, and may agree only to token steps. If North Korea is completely embargoed, Kim Jong-Il might lash out in desperation.
  3. The US could begin a slow and orderly draw down of its troops in South Korea beginning next year, until no meaningful forces remain. This would leave South Korea to defend itself, with the understanding that if North Korea ever chose the nuclear route, the US would retaliate in kind.

Why is the last option most appealing? American forces in South Korea are now short-range targets for a North Korean desperation attack. By withdrawing our forces we would remove them from danger, while the US military would still have the capability to defeat North Korea should the need arise. Removing US forces also denies Kim Jong-Il the bogeyman he needs to justify his evil regime, weakening internal support for his rule.

If the US withdraws from the Korean peninsula, Japan, South Korea, and China will finally have to devise their own strategy for dealing with their bad neighbor. North Korea’s economy is in a death spiral; if these neighbors withdraw life support, the state will likely collapse. As long as the US is responsible for regional security, they have no incentive to make these tough choices. If we withdraw, North Korea’s neighbors may make the tough decisions, and resolve the problem on their own. On the other hand, if the situation destabilizes, we will have removed our soldiers from harm’s way, while placing confidence in our military’s ability to win a war if that becomes inevitable.

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