Kim Jong Un is on a roll. After firing a second missile over Japan, successfully testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and successfully detonating a larger-yield nuclear weapon, the North Korean threat has grown significantly more dire in just a few weeks. General John Hyten, who commands U.S. Strategic Command, recently stated that he assumes that North Korea has successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. He also explained that while North Korea has yet to demonstrate a reliable ICBM that could deliver a nuclear warhead, “it’s just a matter of when, not if.” What happens next will profoundly influence the future of the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.
Unfortunately, with each North Korean success, America’s prospects of preventing North Korea’s further nuclearization grow dimmer. Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation can and should be intensified, but China’s willingness to implement severe sanctions against North Korea is uncertain at best. Moreover, Pyongyang has for decades demonstrated its willingness to bear incredible poverty and isolation as the price of a credible nuclear capability.
Many outside analysts have speculated that encouraging regime change from within North Korea may be the most viable way out of this conundrum. Of course, as seen several years ago in the Arab Spring, even the most robust-seeming regimes may suddenly collapse, given the right circumstances. Regrettably, Kim Jong Un’s recent successes — getting closer to fulfilling the decades-old dreams of his father and grandfather — have likely strengthened his own domestic legitimacy, and diminished the chances that North Korean elites may choose to depose him.
Finally, preventative war is highly unattractive for the United States and its allies, because of North Korea’s ability to kill potentially millions of South Koreans, Japanese, and Americans. While the United States would ultimately be successful in a conflict with North Korea, in all likelihood that victory would come at a horrendous cost. Pyongyang knows this and does everything it can to emphasize the costs of war, which means that threats to attack North Korea therefore are likely to ring somewhat hollow to Pyongyang. This fundamentally undermines every attempt to negotiate with North Korea, as it severely diminishes U.S. leverage over what Pyongyang values most — its own survival.
Given the remarkable pace of successes North Korea has seen in recent days and weeks, and the inability…