Why We Should Contain, Not Corner, North Korea

News Abroad

Mr. Creswell is Associate Professor of History at The Florida State University.

North Korea’s recent missile launches, though expected, have captured international attention. The White House has confirmed at least seven missile launches, with perhaps more to come. One of them, the Taepodong-2, which allegedly has a range that could allow it to reach U.S. soil, exploded shortly after launch. It is this long-range missile that particularly worries the White House. Yet these worries are overblown. The United States can easily deter any threat North Korea poses to America and its allies.

In late June, President Bush warned North Korea that, “Launching the missile is unacceptable.” Now he sees that his options are limited. Responding militarily to the launch would clearly be highly unwise. Contrary to the advice given by former secretary of defense William Perry and former assistant secretary of defense Ashton Carter, bombing the North Korea’s nuclear facilities would be a foolish move. Such a strike could prompt its leader Kim Jong-Il to unleash a rain of conventionally armed missiles on Seoul, South Korea, a U.S. ally. A North Korean attack on Seoul would cause tremendous destruction to the South Korean capital, a troubling possibility that should give pause to American policy makers.

A military strike would produce other repercussions. If North Korea were to collapse under the blows of American military strikes, the responsibility for occupying post-war North Korea would fall to the United States, which already has its hands full trying to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which continue to be plagued by violence. This twin burden would overstretch a U.S. military establishment that already has too much to do. Furthermore, an imploded North Korea could cause instability throughout Asia, which is certainly not in the best interest of the United States.

That leaves the diplomatic route, but even here America’s hands are tied, as China and Russia, members of the six-nation talks­- multilateral discussions also involving Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States­-see things differently from the Bush administration. Japan, which rarely takes the lead in international issues, has proposed, with American and British backing, sanctions to punish North Korea. Yet Beijing and Moscow, both permanent members of the Security Council, indicate they would veto the strong Japanese resolution.

Although the North Korean regime is extremely secretive, its goal is straightforward: it wants direct talks with the United States in order to obtain an American pledge not to invade. Nonetheless, Mr. Bush continues to rule out direct talks with North Korea categorically unless Pyongyang completely abandons its nuclear program. Yet America’s policies toward Iraq-­a member of the “Axis of Evil”­-push North Korea in the opposite direction. The United States invaded and toppled the government of Iraq. North Korea rightly concludes, as does Iran, that the best way to deter an American invasion is to possess a nuclear arsenal.

Given North Korea’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons and the poor hand that the Untied States and its allies have to play, the best option to pursue is a policy of containment. The policy worked for a half a century against the superpower Soviet Union, and it will work against a minor power like North Korea. While many Western observers characterize Kim Jong-Il as “crazy” and a “madman,” officials who have actually met him, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, say otherwise. It would be wiser to treat Kim as a rational, albeit unsavory, individual who understands that if his country were to launch a missile attack against the United States, North Korea would invite massive and overwhelming American retaliation.

Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said as much in May 2005, declaring that “of course, the United States maintains significant­-and I want to underline significant­-deterrent capability of all kinds in the Asia-Pacific region. So I don’t think there should be any doubt about our ability to deter whatever the North Koreans are up to.”

She was right then and she would be right now.

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/19/2006

It is about such folks as lederers they say "a thief's hat is on fire"...

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006


Who won the Korean War? Do you believe China will stand by and allow the US to march freely/uncontested onto the Korean peninsula? If they did allow this unlikely scenario where are the US troops coming from? We're already being bloodied/ stretched thin by a ragtag bunch of bedouins in Iraq. Should the US resort to bombing/ missile campaign against Pyongyang don't you thing N. Korea would lay waste to Seoul?

Kim Jong-Il is a demonic/megalomaniac who happens to be insane but, your post, although not as bizarre as 'K to the J' is fairly crazy enough.

John H. Lederer - 7/19/2006

"Although the North Korean regime is extremely secretive, its goal is straightforward: it wants direct talks with the United States in order to obtain an American pledge not to invade."

Gee. I thought their goals were a bit more grandiose.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/17/2006

"If North Korea were to collapse under the blows of U.S. military strikes, we would have the responsibility of occupying North Korea." -- Why? We could just leave the collapsed North Korea to its neighbors, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, and especially South Korea, which has been much too ready to depend on American military force for the past 50 years, and right now is of very little help with the insane Kim.