The Nub of the North Korea Crisis

The Nub of the North Korea Crisis
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File
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We have entered the most dangerous moment in world politics since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The nightmare is only getting worse, thanks to North Korea’s increasingly rapid development of nuclear weapons, the missiles to deliver them, and the regime’s chilling threats to use them against the U.S., Japan, and South Korea.

Last week, despite U.N. sanctions and China’s public call for restraint, Kim Jong Un tested his nation’s most powerful nuclear device yet. Analysts are still not sure if it was a hydrogen bomb, but Western intelligence believes those are coming soon. The regime is already miniaturizing its weapons and improving its long- and medium-range missiles. It also has thousands of conventional weapons pointed at South Korea, including some that could hit nuclear power plants.

A succession of U.S. presidents, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, could not slow these North Korean programs. Neither has President Trump. He has tried an open hand to China, a closed fist to North Korea, and repeated demonstrations of U.S. firepower, all to no effect. It is painfully clear that Kim will not pause his weapons program, much less relinquish it, unless he fears imminent death and destruction. So far, he doesn’t. Neither does his major backer, China.

Making that threat credible without actually launching a major war is the nub of the current crisis, not because Kim himself is likely to change course but because Beijing might. China is Kim’s only lifeline, and it dreads a war on the Korean Peninsula. Short of that, Beijing is deeply concerned about a deteriorating security environment, encircled by adversaries, bristling with U.S. troops and ships, and shaken by the prospect of Japan rearming.

China has only itself to blame for this increasingly toxic environment. Facing no serious external threat, it chose to expand aggressively in the South China Sea and ignore international courts that ruled against it. It chose to make North Korea a lethal threat by providing it vital economic and military aid. Now, facing the unhappy consequences, China must decide whether to stay the course or change dramatically.

The choices are momentous. They will be made knowing that, if nothing changes, North Korea will soon be capable of incinerating American cities and millions of lives. Every U.S. president has said that is unacceptable. What we don’t know is whether they meant it.

U.S. Choices

The most fundamental choice facing the Trump administration is whether it is willing to go to war over North Korea’s nuclear program. Since Seoul is within easy artillery range of North Korea, any fighting would lead to enormous loss of life and physical destruction there.

The obvious alternative is deterrence—the certainty that American forces would annihilate North Korea if the Kim regime used nuclear weapons.

That threat has worked—so far—for every other pair of nuclear adversaries. But none has used the repeated, terrifying rhetoric of North Korea (except for Iran, which is North Korea’s close working partner in these nuclear and missile programs). And none has been willing to sell every weapons system it develops to any eager buyer, as North Korea is.

Since deterrence is almost certain to work, the real question is “Is ‘near certainty’ good enough?” If there is a 10 percent chance Seattle and Los Angeles could be destroyed in some future conflict with North Korea, should we wage preventive war now? What if the chance is 5 percent? 1 percent? No one has any idea what the odds are. No one. But we do know that preventive war now will kill tens of thousands, possibly many more, and we know the last preventive war ended badly.

Short of war, the Trump administration is sure to ramp up economic sanctions and move more anti-ballistic missile systems into the region. It will push hard for technical improvements, more defensive batteries, and more funding.

To see what the administration decides behind closed doors, look for several public signals. Are they starting to move lots of military assets into the region—the men and matériel needed to fight? Are they going to start shooting down North Korean missile tests, or, much more provocatively, actually fire missiles over North Korea just as Pyongyang fired them over Japan? Is the U.S. willing to ratchet up punishing economic sanctions against China, particularly those tough enough to hurt American firms and poison bilateral relations? It is precisely because such sanctions are costly to the U.S. that they would signal Washington’s resolve. Is the U.S. willing to support a major rearming of Japan? That question is critical because the U.S. might not respond to an attack on Japan if it feared that response could lead to an atomic attack on the U.S. itself.

Ultimately, all these signals are aimed at China. North Korea won’t change unless China squeezes hard enough to threaten the Kim regime itself.

China’s Choices

China has long fretted over North Korea’s independence, but those frictions have been less important than two countervailing considerations. First, China gains strategically because the North Korean threat preoccupies the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. Unfortunately for Beijing, the region is now responding by arming and cooperating, so North Korea is becoming a strategic liability. Second, China has feared that even moderate pressure on Pyongyang could inadvertently cause the regime to implode. That could lead to mass migration across the Yalu River into China, a unified peninsula under Seoul’s leadership, an American ally on China’s border (much as Russia feared in Ukraine), and possibly a regional war if Beijing enters to save North Korea and prevent unification.

The question is whether this new environment will force Beijing to change policies. What could?

  • Economic sanctions severe enough to devastate China’s export-dependent economy and ultimately threaten the regime’s stability.
  • Japan rearming to cope with a looming North Korean threat.
  • The sight of U.S. personnel and equipment moving to the region, preparing to fight.

China can signal North Korea by voting for tough U.N. sanctions, but that won’t matter to Pyongyang unless China cuts off access to its banks, trade revenues, military technology, and fuel. If China does that, then it is serious. If not, it is merely playing for time.

It has done that for two decades. And time is running out.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at and can be reached at

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