What Trump, U.S. Allies Can Do About North Korea

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How U.S.-North Korea Tension Could Lead to War

North Korea says it’s achieved its goal of possessing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Since mid-year, it’s test-fired three long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, sent a couple of mid-range missiles flying over Japan and staged its most powerful nuclear test. Leader Kim Jong Un said Nov. 29 the country’s nuclear push is complete. U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to use military force to stop his nuclear program, which Kim says he needs to deter a U.S. invasion. After the latest missile test, Trump said the U.S. "will take care of it."

1. Who leads the world’s response to North Korea?

South Korea, the U.S. and Japan bear the brunt of Kim’s threats and constitute the front line of the international response. The alliances among them have been tested, as when Trump described South Korea’s approach toward its neighbor as "appeasement." A greater challenge is getting China, North Korea’s most important ally and biggest trading partner, and Russia to work with them. United Nations resolutions going back to 2006 demand that North Korea abandon all nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missiles programs.

2. What has the U.S. done to punish North Korea?

Trump signed an executive order in September effectively allowing the U.S. to impose a full trade and financial embargo through the use of secondary sanctions targeting non-U.S. banks, companies and people who do business with North Korea. Analysts say those sanctions have more bite than previous sanctions. The U.S. has also allowed South Korea to put more powerful payloads on its missiles and pledged to let Japan and South Korea buy more "highly sophisticated military equipment" from the U.S. Trump also has threatened a trade embargo against countries that do business with North Korea. And he’s labeled North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism.

3. Is a pre-emptive military attack an option?

Such a strike might take out North Korea’s known nuclear and missile sites but 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. 

Ballistic missile launch, Feb 12.

Source: STR/AFP via Getty Images

4. What’s China’s position?

China says it wants a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula, and its leadership has urged the U.S. and North Korea to make conciliatory gestures as a way to revive negotiations. China’s ruling Communist Party wants to avoid military conflict, which could send North Korean refugees flooding over the border, threaten 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. It suspended coal imports from the north this year and collaborated with the U.S. to get the UN Security Council to expand sanctions.

5. So the U.S. and China are working together?

They’ve pledged to, but the two have quarreled over the value of China’s efforts. After U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson characterized China’s cooperation on North Korea as "uneven," the U.S. took steps to penalize a Chinese bank, a Chinese shipping company and two Chinese citizens it claimed had worked to help North Korea evade sanctions. In July, following North Korean long-range missile tests, Trump tweeted, "China could easily solve this problem!” Even so, trade data indicate China is living up to its pledges.

6. What do South Korea and Japan say?

South Korea President Moon Jae-in took office in May promising a new era of engagement with its neighbor. Last month, he called on North Korea to take part in the Winter Olympics, being staged in his country in February. At the same time, he’s pushing for a military overhaul to keep Kim’s regime at bay. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has strongly backed Trump’s line, repeatedly saying that he favors pressure over dialogue to resolve the issue.

7. What would be the point of talks?

Diplomats have long talked about seeking a grand bargain first suggested by retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Lloyd Vasey: In exchange for economic assistance and security guarantees, North Korea would agree to verifiable denuclearization. This may be unrealistic, since Kim is unlikely to agree to shed his arsenal. A senior North Korean defector said in December 2016 that as long as Kim is in power, the country won’t give up its nuclear weapons “even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards.” U.S. officials are concerned that initiating talks would be seen as rewarding irresponsible behavior by North Korea. Others have argued that talks could achieve a freeze on Kim’s program, which -- left unchecked -- would multiply the numbers of warheads and missiles at his disposal.

8. What are North Korea’s capabilities?

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea has as many as 60 nuclear bombs and can miniaturize warheads to fit on missiles, the Washington Post reported in August. The September nuclear test, of what North Korea claimed was a hydrogen bomb, was more than 10 times stronger than a test a year earlier. The explosion was big enough to “pretty much end an American city” if successfully delivered by an ICBM, according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on nuclear issues. After North Korea’s ICBM test in July, the U.S. confirmed that the missile was capable of reaching at least some U.S. states. Kim claims the entire U.S. is now in range.

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

No major country has said yet that it will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. 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 fatally, 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.
  • 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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