No Good Options in Dealing with North Korea

San Francisco Chronicle, April 17, 2017

By Leon E. Panetta

In a dangerous world filled with flash points, North Korea represents one of the most immediate threats.

And, yet, in responding to this threat, U.S. national security reviews have looked at everything from preemptive military action to a policy of “strategic patience.” The bitter reality is that there are no good options.

North Korea has been a rogue nation since the end of the Korean War more than 60 years ago. The problem is that now it is a nuclear-armed rogue nation. The North Koreans are working on an operational intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the West Coast.

There is mounting evidence that the North Koreans have:

  • More than a dozen nuclear weapons.
  • Conducted five nuclear tests and are probably preparing for a sixth.
  • Developed a mobile missile system.
  • Conducted 24 missile tests last year.

They are making progress on solid-fuel rocket motors and miniaturization of warheads to fit on top of a missile, and they have over 20,000 rocket launchers, artillery pieces and heavy mortars.

All of this is in the hands of an uncertain and unpredictable leader, Kim Jung Un, who like his father and grandfather is willing to punish and intimidate others, purge anyone who threatens his power, starve his people and threaten the U.S. and the international community.

The history of North Korea is the history of a nation that has bounced from provocation to accommodation and back again without significant economic or diplomatic success except to preserve the regime.

And, so, here we are again: North Korea is threatening to conduct a war against the United States. And President Trump early this week tweeted that “North Korea is looking for trouble.”

Over the years, the Department of Defense has developed all kinds of plans for both preemptive and retaliatory military strikes. But there is a good reason why no recent U.S. president has been willing to pull the trigger.

Seoul, the South Korean capital, has more than 20 million inhabitants and is just 35 miles from the border with North Korea. It would be hit hard by rockets, artillery and mortars, with an estimated loss of more than 130,000 people in the first two hours of a conventional bombardment. And if the attack and North Korea’s response escalated into a full-scale nuclear war, millions could lose their lives.

This is why we have a policy of containment and deterrence. The regime knows that to use, or even seriously threaten to use, its nuclear weapons would be an act of suicide. But Kim also knows that military threats, as a means of forcing him to give up his nuclear weapons program, are largely hollow. The danger is that provocation could lead to miscalculation — and a war that nobody wants.

It is for that reason that the only option is for the United States to maintain and strengthen our military and intelligence capabilities, support our allies, increase economic sanctions and pressure China to force North Korea back into negotiations. If some combination of pressure and engagement continues to fail, all we are left with is containment and deterrence, in the hope that the regime, like the old Soviet Union, will self-destruct.

That may not be very satisfying, but it is the bitter reality.

Leon E. Panetta is the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the former U.S. secretary of defense.