China, embargo, Japan, Kim Jong Un, missile defense, missiles, Nikki Haley, North Korea, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, sanctions, Shinzo Abe, South Korea, Trade, Trump, United Nations
Tuesday’s post explained my reasons for concluding that, contrary to the emerging conventional wisdom in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that North Korea’s use of its growing and increasingly powerful arsenal of nuclear weapons can be deterred with the same kind of policies that the United States used to keep the nuclear peace during the Cold War.
As I’ve argued, the resulting dangers mean that the best way to serve America’s paramount interest (by a long shot) of preventing a nuclear attack on its own territory is to pull U.S. forces out of the immediate area, and letting Northeast Asia’s powerful, wealthy countries deal with dictator Kim Jong Un as they see fit. This move would both ensure that the governments with the greatest stake in keeping North Korea’s missiles in their silos, and even eliminated, bear the costs and risks of handling the problem, and that the only plausible pretext for Pyongyang attacking the United States itself is eliminated.
Of course, Washington has chosen not to take this route. But America’s response so far to the escalating North Korea threat is turning into a major failure based even on its own criteria for success. After all, the latest North Korean missile overflew Japanese territory. Although the overflight was brief, the combined U.S. and Japanese response could not help but send a message of weakness and egg on Kim further.
According to Japan’s defense minister, Tokyo decided not to shoot down the missile because the government determined it wasn’t intended to land on Japanese territory. I don’t know how to say “Baloney!” in Japanese, but complete contempt is the only justifiable reaction. For despite this stated confidence, as the missile approached, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government sent out regular early morning alerts to the public – including in far off Tokyo – warning it to “seek cover” and describing the situation as “very dangerous.”
Another nonsensical rationale for the inaction from both Japanese and U.S. forces, this from a staunch defender of America’s Asia policy status quo: “If we shoot and miss, it would hand Kim Jong-Un an incalculable propaganda victory.” That’s of course true – because as this former official has noted, anti-missile technology is anything but proven. But of course, keeping the defensive missiles in their launchers also winds up telling North Korea that the United States and its allies have little faith in their systems.
Moreover, the Pentagon and its foreign counterparts can conduct all the tests they want, but adequate confidence in missile defenses won’t be legitimately justified until they’ve shown they can work in real-world situations. And better to try shoot-downs sooner rather than later – both because North Korea’s offensive capabilities will only improve as time passes, and because its better to find out about the real-world shortcomings of allied systems ASAP.
So if I’m Kim Jong Un, I’m looking at the U.S. and Japanese failure even to try a shoot-down and asking myself, “Let’s see what else I can get away with?” And when he develops reasonably reliable intercontinental missiles capable of hitting American territory and destroying American cities, he could easily conclude that the “what else” includes major threats against South Korea that would be entirely credible, and that could move him closer to effective mastery over the entire peninsula.
How, then, can Washington and its regional allies send some credible messages themselves? The following list is meant to start a (long overdue) serious discussion:
>First, the allies can actually try to shoot down North Korean missiles judged on a flight path anywhere near some of their territories. Again, even if they miss, they’ll at least get some truly reliable data on their systems’ capabilities.
>Second, they could urge the United Nations to authorize a total ban on trade and commerce with North Korea. The United States, Japan, and South Korea could also announce that they will enforce the ban with punitive measures against violators. The North’s business partners would then face a clear – and no-brainer – choice: They can continue trading with economically miniscule North Korea or they can continue trading with three of the world’s largest economies, but they can’t do both.
It’s true that North Korea’s biggest trade partner is China, that all three allies have extensive economic ties with the PRC, and that even the United States – a clear loser in China trade – has been reluctant to disrupt these relations significantly. But now the subject is war and peace and the core security of Japan and South Korea. If this reluctance continues even after North Korea has sent missiles over Japanese territory, Kim will inevitably conclude that his main adversaries lack the stomach to resist further provocations.
>The United States, Japan, and South Korea could blockade air and sea trade with North Korea. China’s overland trade would continue – but ever-stronger economic sanctions on China finally could persuade Beijing to halt this commerce once and for all.
>The United States could further pressure China by deciding to sell all of its neighbors – including Taiwan – any conventional weapons they wanted, and to provide whatever training they needed to operate them effectively. (President Trump is thinking along these lines regarding South Korea, but the new policy should go much further.) This step of course would also help deal with China’s aggressiveness in the South China and East China Seas, and boost America’s own production and export of these advanced manufactures. So Beijing would need to decide whether coddling North Korea was worth seeing Asia’s other countries – including many bearing major historic and/or current grudges against China – become much stronger militarily
>Finally – for now – the United States could announce a full-scale review of its nuclear non-proliferation policies in Asia, with a special focus on whether it would continue opposing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan and South Korea. As with the previous proposal, China would need to decide whether coddling North Korea was worth seeing one of its major national security nightmares – nuclear arms possessed by the same Japan that launched devastating attacks against it in 1894 and 1937 – come to life.
Shortly after the latest North Korea launch, American envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, declared, “No country should have missiles flying over them like those 130 million people in Japan. It is unacceptable. They (North Korea) have violated every single UN Security Council Resolution that we’ve had. So I think something serious has to happen.”
She’s absolutely right in implying that neither the United States nor the so-called world community has done anything “serious” yet regarding the threat posed by North Korea. Options like the above would qualify. If Washington genuinely wants to maintain its current North Korea and broader East Asia strategies, they need to be actively, and urgently, considered.