SYDNEY: Last week’s test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by North Korea raises the time-honoured question surrounding East Asian international relations: What to do with a cold war-relic wildly out of touch with the modernising ethos of the region’s fastest developing countries?
North Korea is surrounded by business-like states focussed on rapid development and economics, and concerned with issues of traditional national interest like territorial disputes, trade deals and shifts in the balance of power, with little interest in ideology.
In contrast, North Korea is a bizarre and frightening mish-mash of gangsterism, feudalism and sun-king ideology, earning it the moniker of “the impossible state”.
It is this wide variation from anything surrounding it, indeed from anything in the world, that forms much of the reason why we find it so hard to live with an emerging North Korean nuclear missile capability.
In expert discussions about North Korea, this implicit reasoning is the most frequently cited: North Korea is weird. A grotesque, incomprehensible entity like it simply cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons. Hence, the growing debate over the use of force.
SOUTH KOREA’S VETO AGAINST MILITARY FORCE
But this ICBM test launch will not lead to a strike, despite all the talk about how it is a game-changer.
The most important reason is not strategic but political. Any kinetic action by the US against North Korea would risk substantial retaliation, likely targeted at US allies South Korea and Japan.
Yes, Alaska may be within Pyongyang’s missile range. But North Korea could strike with far greater force and flexibility in the region. Its many missile tests into the Sea of Japan over the last year are almost certainly intended to signal to Japan that it too is in the firing line. But of course, it is South Korea that is most vulnerable.
Any US strike against the North would require, both politically and morally, the assent of the Japanese and especially the South Korean government. Politically, a strike without their assent would almost certainly terminate the alliances at once, since South Korean and Japanese populations and cities would likely face devastating retaliation after a US strike. If they did not have the right to consent to the risk of that strike, why would they stay in alliance with the US?
Morally, it would be astonishingly callous for a democracy like the US to gamble millions of lives without even soliciting Japanese and South Korean assent.
So even Donald Trump, for all his bluster, is not going to attack North Korea without South Korean and Japanese approval. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative and a hawk on North Korea, might assent. But the new South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a liberal and a dove who wants outreach and engagement. He will never assent, and his five-year term has just begun.
Thus, there will be no US strike against North Korea in the next five years.
There are other reasons why military action would not happen, including the possibility of Chinese involvement spiralling into a Sino-US shooting war, and North Korean use of human shields around bombing locations.
But the South Korea veto alone is sufficient in preventing military action for at least the next five years.
THE US HAS LEARNT TO LIVE WITH RUSSIAN, CHINESE AND PAKISTANI NUKES
If kinetic options are not on the table, what other choices are there as the “impossible state” progresses toward a nuclear missile that can strike the lower 48 states of the US?
One word, adaptation. The US and the west learned to live with the nuclear missiles of unfriendly regimes in the past.
Despite the hysteria of the Cuban missile crisis, the US adjusted to the Soviets’ ability to strike the homeland. When China developed that capability subsequently, the US did not provoke a repeat of Cuba.
By then it had accepted that some level of nuclear proliferation was likely and trying to prevent others from nuclearising would create enormous risks including the risk of major war, if Cuban missile-style crises were repeated.
Pakistan too developed nuclear weapons but a South Asian nuclear war has not happened in the 20 years since India and Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold. Nor have the weapons been handed over to terrorists, lost or accidentally launched, as were once feared.
The US has adjusted to at least three non-democratic or partially democratic states with nuclear weapons. This suggests the US can learn to live with a North Korean nuclear missile too.
None of this is preferred; it is far better to the US that none of these states had nuclear missiles. But North Korea’s nuclearisation is simply a reality at this point, as it is for these other states.
CHINA, SANCTIONS AND MISSILE DEFENCE
What then can be done? If North Korea changes line in the long run, it will likely be due to a growing introduction of foreign ways, particularly through South Korean media, into the country. This would also entail generational change, bringing North Korea more in line with international norms.
In the short term, there are no good options. The real debate then concerns medium-term approaches, specifically the debate between engagement and a tougher line. Assuming engagement does not work - and it has not in the past - the usual options reassert themselves.
Sanctions are often unfairly condemned for not stopping the nuclear programme, but the better question to ask is: “Where would these programmes be without the sanctions?” Moreover, sanctions and sanction relief are useful bargaining chips if the regime ever chooses to negotiate, just was the case in the Iranian denuclearisation negotiations.
Whatever else we say about Trump, his instincts on China and North Korea are correct. He is right in trying to engage China on Pyongyang. China’s economic leverage over North Korea is enormous. The North’s trade and banking operations – licit and illicit – go through China.
If China were to genuinely close the pipeline into North Korea and strictly enforce sanctions, North Korea would almost certainly enter a major economic crisis. So the US has little choice but to keep working with Beijing, as every US president since the 1990s has realised.
While the US has little choice but to maintain sanctions and Chinese engagement, it should consider unilateral measures by the region’s democracies, in particular, building up missile defence.
There is much complaining in South Korea and Japan that missile defence is too expensive. The time for this whining is over. North Korea is not going to stop building missiles; China is highly unlikely to coerce North Korea into halting, and the US is even less likely to strike North Korean missiles.
A “roof” of layered missile defences, beginning with Patriot missile batteries around major sites and moving upward with Aegis cruisers and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, is now an obvious choice. As defensive systems, they signal no offensive intention.
Countries like the US, South Korea and Japan can continue to look for smarter sanctions, seek Chinese assistance, and engage in negotiations. But if there is any one thing North Korea’s newfound long-range missile power should tell us, it is that countries need the ability to block those missiles.
This is the future of deterrence, and perhaps conflict, with North Korea.
Robert E Kelly is an associate professor at the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University in South Korea. This piece first appeared on The Interpreter. Read the original commentary here.