The New York Times reported a couple of days ago that:

While Mr. Obama was in the Middle East and Europe last week, several senior officials said the president’s national security team had all but set aside the central assumption that guided American policy toward North Korea over the past 16 years and two presidencies: that the North would be willing to ultimately abandon its small arsenal of nuclear weapons in return for some combination of oil, nuclear power plants, money, food and guarantees that the United States would not topple its government, the world’s last Stalinesque regime.

Now, after examining the still-inconclusive evidence about the results of North Korea’s second nuclear test, the administration has come to different conclusions: that Pyonyang’s top priority is to be recognized as a nuclear state, that it is unwilling to bargain away its weapons and that it sees tests as a way to help sell its nuclear technology.

So far, options and next steps that are being suggested or discussed publicly are of the logical diplomatic variety: a linear stepping up of pressure, via sanctions and interdiction, discussions amongst the the remaining five (the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia), engagement with North Korea–or not

But North Korea clearly has no interest in playing along.  Silence, at worst, would be greeted with further petulance–remember, North Korea now sees itself as a fully-fledged member of the nuclear club, not to be casually dismissed–unnerving South Korea and Japan.  At best—if it can be seen as best—silence and other diplomatic compromises tacitly enable North Korea to continue to trade its nuclear wares unmolested.  And North Korea has stated that interdiction of that trade would be regarded as a declaration of war.

There are no ‘good’ options left, only a series of worse options: there are fewer returns and increasing risk in continuing to trade away action for time.   

That leaves some form of direct action.  We have to ask what a use of force would have to achieve to be effective.

The first main concern is eliminating the nuclear bargaining chip–and in doing so, sending messages to other nuclear wannabes (Iran).  That means the North Korean nuclear capabilities would be targetted: the reprocessing plant, the fuel fabrication plant, the reactor.  A key challenge will be securing the weapons-grade material. 

The second main concern is the need to continue to balance the relationships in North China.  Japan and South Korea would need to be reassured, while China and Russia would have to be comfortable that they were not threatened. 

The third key element is regime survival.  Kim Jong-Il would have to understand that any retaliation would trigger another Korean war and that a war would result in the inevitable end of his regime, with little or no prospect of his son’s succession.  If reports are correct, his succession plans suggest regime survival is a high priority. Moreover, regime survival is needed to ensure that refugees do not swamp China and South Korea, and that the Peninsula remains divided.

One scenario may involve President Obama calling Kim Jong-Il advising him he has six hours to evacuate key nuclear facilities before the cruise missile strikes, and warning him of the consequences of retaliation.  Getting all parties on board will be hard, however.  Past patterns of response are terribly familiar, even comfortable: outrage, a determination to do something, hesitation, and delay.  It’s a response that avoids not over-pressuring the unstable multipolar balance in North Asia.  

There are many differences between the current and past provocations by North Korea.  Not least amongst those is that in the past North Korea seemed content to gain from exploiting divisions within the region, and between its neighbours and the United States, but now North Korea seems determined to destabilise the status quo, a carefully negotiated and understood balance of power on the Peninsula and within the region.


Lyon, R. (2009). North Korea: the reverberations of 25 May. Policy Analysis. Canberra, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.