Obama’s options limited in dealing with North Korea

One of the most vexing and complex foreign policy problems President Barack Obama will face in his second term is posed by the isolated authoritarian North Korean regime that is dangerously close to having a deliverable nuclear strike capability.  The president has only bad options to address the rogue’s nuclear threat so he will likely stick with the status quo policy and accept the potentially dire consequences.

Last month North Korea successfully test fired a long-range missile, a major step in Pyongyang’s ability to hit the American homeland with nuclear-tipped missiles.  The North American Aerospace Defense Command confirmed the missile’s success and now several sources indicate North Korea is prepared for its third nuclear test at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility to perfect a small nuclear warhead to outfit a missile.

Pyongyang wants nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles for several compelling reasons.  It fears the U.S. might use force to topple the regime and believes possessing a deliverable nuclear weapon is an effective deterrent.  Further, a nuclear weapon gives the North leverage over its southern neighbor, which could be used to coerce Korean reunification albeit under the North’s draconian terms.   It also bolsters the regime’s dynastic dictator, Kim Jong-un, who depends on the perception of power to maintain his grip over the country’s population of 23 million.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions date back to the Korean War when President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to use them to end the war.  A few years later when the Chinese tested their first device, then Korean leader Kim Il-sung sent word to Mao Tse-tung, the leader of China, asking his “brother” to share nuclear weapons secrets.  Mao refused but the Soviets agreed.

The Soviets helped build a nuclear research reactor near the city of Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang.  That reactor produced six kilograms of plutonium per year which the North harvested for its secret weapons program.  In 2002 then Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program: “We now believe (the North Koreans) have a couple of nuclear weapons and have had them for years.”

Pyongyang has a second source of nuclear weapons material, enriched uranium which it first officially acknowledged in 2010.  North Korea’s enrichment facility is located at the Yongbyon nuclear site that includes 2,000 uranium enriching centrifuges which can produce 40 kilograms of 90 percent highly enriched uranium per year for weapons.

North Korea purchased the uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan, according to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf who revealed the transfer in his 2006 memoir, “In the Line of Fire”.  The former president said Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s former chief nuclear scientist and the world’s leading nuclear proliferator, “Transferred nearly two dozen P-1 and P-2 centrifuges to North Korea” as well as nuclear instruments, special oils and designs.  Further, thanks to Russia, the North imported high-strength aluminum tubes used to fabricate centrifuges.

Today, North Korea has sufficient raw nuclear material for perhaps three dozen weapons – 12 plutonium weapons and another two dozen uranium-based weapons, and it has the technology and raw materials to keep producing enriched uranium.  Further, Pyongyang has more than 600 ballistic missiles to deliver nuclear weapons thanks to help from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan.

The U.S. has long opposed North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programs with policies that ranged from direct engagement to labeling the regime part of an “axis of evil.”  Unfortunately every effort to date to denuclearize Pyongyang has failed including the stalled Six-Party Talks – the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and North Korea – that were a result of North Korea withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.

President Obama introduced a policy known as “strategic patience” that waits for North Korea to come back to the Six-Party negotiating table while maintaining pressure on the regime.  Unfortunately, Obama’s policy allowed North Korea to control the situation while improving its missile and nuclear programs.

In 2011, Obama launched bilateral negotiations with North Korea.  That effort led to the 2012 “Leap Day Agreement” which gave 240,000 metric tons of food in exchange for a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activities and the return of nuclear inspectors to North Korea.  But two weeks later North Korea derailed that agreement when it declared that it would launch an “earth observation satellite,” which broke up in flight.

There are at least four policy courses of action available to President Obama to potentially deny North Korea nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

First, we can seek regime change believing any new North Korean government will eschew nuclear weapons.   Of course the ideal outcome of the Korean peninsula crisis is reunification under stable democratic rule, a 60-year-old American goal.

The U.S. and its allies could facilitate regime change through subversive activities to undermine regime leaders, expand economic pressures to include interdicting cargo to further squeeze Pyongyang’s economy, and cripple the regime’s nuclear and missile programs by clandestine operations such as those used against Iran’s nuclear program.

The problem with this option is that it contradicts the desire to seek a peaceful leadership transition, a regional goal.  Likely an externally imposed regime change would create violence, flows of refugees, economic disaster and would certainly be opposed by communist China.

Second, we can accept a nuclear North Korea and contain the rogue.   This option acknowledges that no peaceful action – talks, sanctions, and economic incentives – will leverage the regime sufficiently to persuade it to abandon nuclearization.

The U.S. would immediately reduce tensions with Pyongyang through a variety of diplomatic, cultural and economic initiatives.  Meanwhile, it must also take action to contain North Korean aggression by providing Asian allies a nuclear umbrella and accept the inevitability of a regional arms race.  The consequences could be severe: alienate China and our Asian allies, make efforts to negotiate with Iran more difficult, and undermine global non-proliferation efforts.

Third, we can embrace a modified status quo approach through new sanctions and incentives with increased international political pressure.  This approach depends on China’s full cooperation, which is unlikely.

North Korea is dependent upon Chinese trade.  In 2011, China accounted for 70 percent of North Korea’s annual trade, up from 57 percent in 2010.  China will only cooperate with this option if it is convinced long-term regional stability is at risk such as the likelihood of a regional nuclear arms race.

North Korea will cooperate if pressed by the Chinese and only if its sovereignty is assured (regime survival) and it gains significant economic benefits.  Of course North Korea’s reliance on external economic resources could contribute to instability, a problem which its neighbors understand well.

Finally, we can eliminate the nuclear threat through military action.  Striking North Korea’s ability to make nuclear bombs and long-range missiles would set-back or eliminate those fledgling programs, might help topple the regime and send a strong message to other rogues that the U.S. will not accept nuclear proliferation.

The consequences of such a policy could be severe.  Our attacks could release radiation that harms many civilians and North Korea would likely respond by launching attacks against South Korea, Japan and possibly China resulting in widespread disaster.

For now expect the second term Obama administration to stay with its “strategic patience” policy – sanctions and promises to hold North Korea accountable for its actions.  The other options – military strike, recognize North Korea as a nuclear state/containment, and seek a regime change – may be discussed in secret cabinet meetings but for now none are politically palpable.

The continuation of the “strategic patience” policy inevitably means, given Pyongyang’s rapid nuclearization, sometime during Obama’s second term the rogue will threaten America and/or our Asian allies with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile or worse.  At that point the president may regret his status quo policy but it will be too late.