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What can the US do about North Korea?

Washington’s response to the rogue nation’s nuclear test Monday is complicated by Pyongyang’s custody of two American journalists.

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"Internal political fluidity in totalitarian systems like North Korea usually gets externalized in belligerent, not conciliatory, behavior," writes Cha.

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Figuring out what North Korea wants from its actions is a game that has frustrated generations of US diplomats and foreign-policy experts. But it is possible that Pyongyang wants nuclear-arms reduction talks with the US – something that would accord it a status as a nuclear-weapons state.

It may also want some kind of regime-security assurance from the US, according to Cha of CSIS. In other words, it could seek a US promise that it will support the current Kim regime through potentially destabilizing internal reforms.

"This stems from the fundamental reform dilemma that [North Korea] faces: It needs to open up to survive, but the process of opening up could lead to the regime's demise," writes Cha.

For the US, one bit of good news, at least in terms of diplomacy, is that the unpredictable Pyongyang regime may finally have gone too far.

The nuclear-weapons test may be so provocative that it could push China, long North Korea's protector, more toward the US camp in terms of policy on the nuclear issue. It could harden political feeling in Japan and perhaps South Korea.

"North Korea's action challenges all the neighbors in ways that arguably should solidify consensus in favor of joint action," says Mr. Snyder of The Asia Foundation.

But what kind of action? That is the difficult question facing Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and other stakeholders in US policy toward East Asia.

The US will need to show that North Korea faces some kind of consequence for its actions. But it also needs to avoid inflaming a situation that appears to be caused at least partly by the North Korean regime's own sense of vulnerability, says Snyder.

At the least, some sort of top-level diplomatic mission to the area could well be forthcoming soon. The UN Security Council could seek further condemnatory resolutions. It is even possible that the US could make a change in its defense posture in Asia, via ship or troop deployments.

One crucial point for the US to watch will be the future of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant. In the past, it has been the production site for the regime's stash of weapons-grade plutonium, estimated as large enough to produce six to eight weapons.

Yongbyon is currently shut down in accordance with the disarmament-for-aid deal struck among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the US.

But North Korea could move to restart the plant, which could eventually produce about one bomb's-worth of fissile material per year. Restarting the plant would take time – meaning the Obama administration would have 12 months or so to decide how to respond to a move that could directly threaten US national security.

For the US, the prospect of a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons placed on top of ballistic missiles would be very daunting. But perhaps worse would be the prospect of North Korea as a nuclear proliferation state.

Pyongyang is suspected of aiding Syria to secretly build a plutonium production reactor. Israel destroyed the site in a unilateral bombing raid in 2007.

Further proliferation aid on the part of North Korean leaders would be worse than production of their own arsenal, said Robert Gallucci, a former US chief negotiator with North Korea, at a seminar on North Korea's nuclear program in 2008.

"This is, to me, the real game," said Mr. Gallucci, referring to Pyongyang's presumed help for Syria. "It's kind of switched, to me."