Preemption And North Korea

Michael O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki argue that a preemptive strike on the DPRK’s threatened test of their long range Taepdong 2 missile “would probably isolate the United States more than Pyongyang.” Further, the main problem is a muddled and inconsistent Korea policy and the larger issue of a nuclear regime, not this specific test.

[T]he administration should build its North Korea policy around the notion that we need to present Pyongyang with a choice — improve its behavior, reform its country, and engage with the world, or retreat further into isolation and lose many of the benefits it enjoys now (especially from South Korea and China, to the tune of more than $2 billion a year in aid and trade). We should focus on substance, not process; on core values, not tactical judgments.

To make this policy workable, we need to make it appealing in Beijing and Seoul. That means offering enough positive inducements, should North Korea be willing to try the path of reform that Vietnam and China itself have taken in the last 30 years, to show that we are willing to work with the regime under the right circumstances. Only if a sincere effort at engagement fails will China and South Korea consider the sorts of economic coercion needed to make Kim Jong Il and his cronies in Pyongyang feel real pain from their actions.


The missile test debate, despite its importance, does not really compare with the significance of what North Korea has done in the last three years in expanding its nuclear arsenal. Even more to the point, it is just a warm-up for the real problem we could be facing in a few short years if North Korea policy continues to fail. We should use this opportunity to refocus on what may be, despite all the attention placed on Iraq and Iran, the most significant nuclear crisis of our time.

As with Iran, there are no good, easy answers. Clearly, though, getting China and Japan on board with whatever policy option we chose makes good strategic sense.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.