The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) recent actions have led to concerns that a conflict is imminent on the Korean peninsula. The DPRK has warned that it may launch another nuclear test. A growing number of experts also believe that the DPRK has accelerated its ability to develop nuclear weapons and now possesses the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks. The DPRK already possesses the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to be deployed on short- to medium-range missiles, which threatens U.S. troops deployed in the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan.
It is likely that the DPRK is making significant progress towards developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. The DPRK’s long-range missile failures helped in providing it with a roadmap for developing an ICBM.
These ominous developments raise the question of what the United States should or should not do in response. Although it may seem that an ICBM capability or nuclear test warrants a military response, the United States and its allies must avoid the temptation of military action. The United States ought not engage in a series of tit-for-tat military responses with the DPRK, and can afford to remain relatively calm about the threat from Kim Jong Un.
Although the DPRK’s behavior is concerning, it is neither a cause for military action nor should it serve as an impetus for a needless standoff with the DPRK. It is important to understand the nature of the DPRK regime. Unlike the mullahs that govern Iran, Kim Jong Un does not appear to be interested in regional domination. The nuclear arsenal and the capability to threaten the United States is Kim Jong Un’s guarantee against regime change imposed by outside actors. Even an imminent ICBM capability should not trigger military action by the United States. Relatively prosperous neighbors surround the DPRK’s impoverished people. This state of affairs is becoming increasingly apparent inside the DPRK. It may happen decades from today, but eventually the current regime of the DPRK will fall of its own accord.
In the interim, the United States ought to take steps to hasten the fall of the DPRK, such as restricting access to coal and iron ore. The United States could impose sanctions on Chinese companies that do business with the DPRK. However, none of these steps would cause the DPRK to abandon its nuclear program.
As such, loose talk of red lines and action must be avoided. The joint U.S.-ROK war plan is called OPLAN 5015 and hinges on a preemptive strike against the DPRK’s leadership in the event of a conflict. The DPRK’s own calculations are also dependent on the ability to launch a preemptive strike against U.S. forces and the ROK. In short, both sides are counting on the ability to strike first, thus creating a grave risk for miscalculation. A muscular response to another nuclear test or missile launch is not worth the risk of igniting a nuclear conflict.
There are additional risks to an aggressive American response. If the United States attempts to shoot down a DPRK missile test and fails, it will diminish the deterrence value of ballistic missile defenses. Moreover, any response would have to take into account ROK concerns. The DPRK possesses enough artillery to inflict catastrophic damage on Seoul. A red line is useless if it leads to a divide between the United States and the ROK. Additionally, the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure China will likely end in disappointment. The Chinese may be concerned with the erratic actions of the DPRK, but are unlikely to take any steps that would hasten the fall of Kim Jong Un, which may lead to a democratic North Korea allied with the United States.
The United States should curb the tough talk about red lines and potential military actions, which could lead to a grave miscalculation as each side is incentivized to take preemptive action. Currently, the catastrophic consequences would be borne by Japan and the ROK, as well as by U.S. forces based in those two countries. Although the DPRK may seem irrational and erratic, its primary goal of mere survival has been abundantly clear. The Trump administration must take great care not to ignite a needless military confrontation.
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Sumeet Aujla is a Master’s candidate in the Security Policy Studies program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He has previously worked at the Hudson Institute. Mr. Aujla received his Bachelor of Arts in political science from New York University.