Trump’s Options to Deal With North Korean Threat: QuickTake Q&A

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U.S. Deploys Thaad Missile System to South Korea

North Korea continues to defy United Nations resolutions -- and endure economic sanctions -- by pushing toward its goal of possessing nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the U.S. mainland. In July, Kim Jong Un’s military test-fired two long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. In September, it staged its most powerful nuclear test -- of what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb capable of being loaded onto a missile -- and the first since U.S. President Donald Trump was elected. A coordinated and effective global response has been elusive. 

1. Who is leading the response?

South Korea, the U.S. and Japan bear the brunt of Kim’s threats and constitute the front line of the international response. That alliance was tested when Trump accused South Korea of considering "appeasement" with its northern neighbor. Among their difficult tasks: getting China and Russia on board.

2. What has the U.S. done so far?

For now the Trump administration is threatening sanctions against countries (including China) doing business with North Korea; allowing South Korea, under a treaty with the U.S. originally aimed at preventing a regional arms race, to put more powerful payloads on its missiles; and pledging to let Japan and South Korea buy more "highly sophisticated military equipment" from the U.S.

3. Is a military attack on North Korea an option?

The U.S. has promised a “massive military response” if it or its allies are threatened. But a preemptive strike that might take out North Korea’s known nuclear and missile sites would potentially carry a huge cost, even if North Korea reacted only with conventional weapons. That’s because North Korea has too many facilities spread out over too much terrain to destroy simultaneously, and South Korea’s capital, Seoul (population: 10 million), is within artillery range of the border. Whether U.S. military capabilities -- including Thaad, a U.S. missile defense system partially deployed in South Korea -- could defend against a North Korean nuclear missile remains to be seen. One option may be to shoot down a missile or destroy launch sites, according to William McKinney, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The risk is that North Korea overreacts to “focused and proportional” military action by attacking Seoul or Japan. 

A QuickTake Q&A on how U.S.-North Korea hostilities might play out

Ballistic missile launch, Feb 12.

Source: STR/AFP via Getty Images

4. What is China’s role?

It’s North Korea’s most important ally and biggest trading partner and says it wants a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula. Its ruling Communist Party wants to avoid military conflict, which could bring catastrophic war, send North Korean refugees flooding over the border, loosen the party’s grip on power and bring U.S. troops to its doorstep. China supplies about 90 percent of North Korea’s energy and much of its food and could lean on it to re-enter negotiations on its nuclear program. China suspended coal imports from North Korea in February; in June, Chinese and U.S. officials collaborated to get the UN Security Council to expand sanctions against North Korea. But China and the U.S. also have quarreled over the value of China’s efforts.

5. What more does the U.S. want China to do?

After U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson characterized China’s cooperation on North Korea as "uneven," the U.S., on June 30, took steps to penalize a Chinese bank, a Chinese shipping company and two Chinese citizens it claimed worked to help North Korea evade sanctions. After the long-range missile tests, the U.S. again criticized China, with Trump tweeting "China could easily solve this problem!” Chinese officials have urged the U.S. and North Korea to make conciliatory gestures as a way to revive talks.

6. What would be the point of talks?

Diplomats have long talked about a grand bargain first suggested by retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Lloyd Vasey, founder of the Pacific Forum CSIS, in which North Korea would agree to verifiable denuclearization in exchange for economic assistance and security guarantees. This may be unrealistic, since Kim is unlikely to agree to give up his arsenal. A senior North Korean defector said in December that as long as Kim was in power, the country would never give up its nuclear weapons, “even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards.” Plus, U.S. officials are concerned that initiating talks would be seen as rewarding North Korea. Still, others argue that talks could achieve a freeze on Kim’s program, which left unchecked would multiply the numbers of missiles and warheads at his disposal.

7. How advanced is North Korea’s missile program?

U.S. intelligence officials concluded that North Korea can miniaturize warheads to fit on missiles, and has as many as 60 nuclear bombs, the Washington Post reported in August. The September nuclear test was the most powerful yet -- about six times stronger than a test a year earlier, according to South Korea’s weather agency. Regardless of whether it was actually a hydrogen bomb, the explosion was big enough to “pretty much end an American city” if strapped on an ICBM, according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on nuclear issues. After the first ICBM test in July, the Americans confirmed the missile was capable of reaching at least part of the U.S. Kim claims the entire U.S. is now in range.

8. Is accepting North Korea’s nukes an option?

Some analysts have suggested that’s the best way to ease the current tensions. But accepting North Korea as a nuclear power could lead South Korea, Japan and perhaps Taiwan to seek their own nuclear arms, undermining, perhaps critically, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. South Korean politicians are already discussing the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were removed in the early 1990s.

The Reference Shelf

  • A related QuickTake on North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • A Bloomberg infographic on North Korea’s military buildup.
  • A Q&A on why the U.S. missile-defense system, known as Thaad, angers China.
  • Bloomberg News showed how money funneled through China makes it harder to apply sanctions to North Korea than to Iran in the past.
  • Bloomberg explained why joining the nuclear club is an obsession of North Korea’s leaders.
  • A research paper from the U.S.-Korea Institute outlines the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
  • Bloomberg View argues that Trump’s linking trade and security is a negotiating strategy that’s doomed to fail.
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