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After North Korea's ICBM Launch, Now What?

In his short tenure as North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un has done a lot to put far richer and stronger nations in an increasingly difficult spot.
In his short tenure as North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un has done a lot to put far richer and stronger nations in an increasingly difficult spot.

On the Fourth of July, North Korea marked a milestone by firing an intercontinental ballistic missile that soared high into space before turning around and landing in the sea near Japan. The North's state media said the missile, Hwasong-14, flew 580 miles, reaching an altitude of 1,741 miles, and flew for nearly 40 minutes.

The successful test of a missile of this kind, which could theoretically put Alaska within its range, is something that President Trump said earlier this year "would never happen." Now that analysts — including those in the U.S. military — confirm it did, the world is grappling with what to do next.

"Testing an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region and the world," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement Tuesday night. "Global action is required to stop a global threat."

In the short term, the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council will meet Wednesday. This is the body that has imposed numerous sanctions packages on North Korea, which have proven ineffective in getting North Korea to change its behavior.

The threat, dubbed "the worst problem on earth," has persisted across U.S. administrations and only grown more alarming over time. Outgoing President Barack Obama warned Trump during the transition that North Korea was the most urgent and vexing problem to confront.

As president, Trump has met with leaders in the region — from Japan, China and South Korea — but so far has stayed on the same policy course as the Obama administration. The Trump administration has pursued a goal of denuclearization and increased pressure via imposing sanctions and working with regional neighbors.

Now, given the symbolic importance of North Korea's technological milestone, as well as the political leverage it earned by reaching that milestone, the rest of the world is in a tighter box in dealing with Pyongyang.

Generally, the options fall into a few baskets:

  • Further isolation with economic sanctions and pressure from regional neighbors,
  • Military moves,
  • Diplomatic engagement, which would require accepting Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed state.
  • Sanctions and China

    "Sanctions regimes are miserable failures until they're not," said Mark Lippert, the most recent U.S. ambassador to South Korea, in his exit interview with NPR.

    But despite "tough-on-paper" sanctions designed to stop the flow of nuclear weapons material into North Korea as well as to deliver economic punishment on the regime, the latest research shows the numerous countries expected to enforce the sanctions aren't doing so. The reasons the sanctions have fallen short include: The sanctions are too complicated to implement, private businesses independently aid North Korea (knowingly or not), and Pyongyang has grown increasingly deft in evading sanctions as it has become more isolated.

    "Not a single component of the U.N. sanctions regime against North Korea currently enjoys robust international implementation," Andrea Berger of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies wrote last month.

    For his part, Trump still seems fixated on having neighboring China, North Korea's largest trading partner, handle the problem.

    "Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!" he tweeted Monday night.

    That approach both overestimates China's influence on Pyongyang and its willingness to put on "heavy moves," though it is unclear what Trump means by heavy moves.

    But tensions between the U.S. and China have grown in recent weeks, following the U.S. Treasury Department's sanctions on a Chinese bank accused of helping North Korea and an arms sale to Taiwan, which mainland China views as a renegade republic.

    Trump admitted last month in a tweet that his hope of getting China to rein in North Korea "has not worked out," but after the ICBM test on Tuesday, he again wondered aloud about Chinese help.

    "Catastrophic" military options

    Each of the strategic options for the North Korea issue present drawbacks, though military moves — an attempt at regime change, a decapitation strike on Kim Jong Un or a limited strike to try to destroy weapons — are far more potentially deadly than others.

    Defense Secretary James Mattis has said that outright war with North Korea would be "catastrophic" and "probably the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes."

    If threatened, North Korea wouldn't have to use nuclear weapons at all — just its artillery — to attack Seoul, a megacity with a metro population of nearly 24 million. South Korea also hosts some 28,000 American troops.

    Other ideas being floated: downing North Korea's electrical grid and possibly shooting down North Korean missiles in their boost or ascent phase. But it's not clear the U.S. has that capability right now.

    Acceptance and engagement

    A week ago, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson and former Defense Secretary William Perry joined others in a letter urging the administration to go beyond the current pressure tactics of escalating sanctions and isolation, and instead engage in talks with North Korea.

    "Tightening sanctions can be useful in increasing pressure on North Korea, but sanctions alone will not solve the problem," the letter cautioned. "Pyongyang has shown it can make progress on missile and nuclear technology despite its isolation."

    During a trip to Seoul in March, Tillerson ruled out engaging North Korea in talks unless Pyongyang showed a commitment to denuclearize. This follows the Obama administration line. But North Korea has shown no willingness to abandon its nuclear program, especially because its advancing technology has only served to strengthen its position globally.

    South Korea's new president, Moon Jae-in, has indicated he is willing to talk with North Korea with the aim of just getting to a freeze of its nuclear program. So far, North Korea has balked at that. But a growing chorus of North Korea observers say that given the advancements to date, it's past time to just talk in the hopes of getting somewhere with this intractable problem.

    "We need to have serious conversations amongst ourselves and with allies about what we're willing to trade. Because so far, there has been no price that was worth paying to stop their program," says Melissa Hanham, a researcher with the James R. Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

    This, of course, presumes that North Korea wants to meet in the first place, something that recent back channel negotiators doubt. "There was absolutely no flexibility or willingness to meet to talk about their nuclear program," says Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council director for Korea who recently met with North Korean officials to try to get nuclear talks back on track.

    Trump, in a tweet, said of North Korea's Kim: "Does this guy have anything better to do?"

    The reality is that in his short tenure as North Korea's leader, Kim has done a lot to put far richer and stronger nations in an increasingly difficult spot.

    Jihye Lee contributed to this story.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.