During this tense time of nuclear crisis, there has been much debate about the options open to the US deter North Korea from further developing ICBMs. For example this article from the Chicago Tribune, which says in its title that US has a number of cards to play, but goes on to explain the only hope lies in China’s ability to rein in NK. China does have big incentives to exercise its influence over NK, but what options does China have if sanctions, which it already supports, don’t work? A trade embargo, cutting off NK’s main source of foreign trade? An embargo would only hurt NK citizens, and it is doubtful that the UN or the US could condone throwing the population into further destitution. Neither would it be effective in influence Kim Jung Un, who doesn’t care about economic prosperity in the least. Economic measures have not proven effective and will not be effective against the NK regime. China would not start a military conflict if it could avoid it, as that would put it in NK’s nuclear cross-hairs.
If China unable to coerce NK, the US, NK’s sworn nemesis, is even less likely to be able to coerce it, whether through economic or military means. A strike, nuclear or conventional, would save the US from a future nuclear threat, but only at the cost of sacrificing South Korea and Japan to NK’s counter-attack. If attacked, Kim Jung Un will sense the end coming and will have no reason not to throw its complete military arsenal at the closest targets.
No, this “crisis” with NK will not be solved through coercion. History has conclusively shown that NK has never responded to coercion positively. Equipped with nuclear weapons and an authoritarian mentality, there is simply no incentive for it to give in to coercion; in fact, doing so would likely be detrimental to Kim Jung Un’s position in the regime, a strong disincentive. This crisis will only be solved by assimilating NK into the international community. Give Kim a carrot, not a stick. Give him something he doesn’t already have, and make him want more (at a cost). The US has every incentive to have friendly relations with NK. First, it would undermine NK’s anti-American propaganda. Currently the US is playing directly into NK’s “capitalist pig” narrative. The US should cease military exercises, and withdraw its aircraft carrier. Second, rapprochement would eliminate the threat of a nuclear strike on the US and its allies. The NK nuclear threat is primarily due to the state of the US-NK relationship, not due to the fact that NK has nuclear weapons. Third, better relations are more likely to lead to increased interaction between NK and the rest of the world, gradually exposing NK citizens to foreign ideas (a movement that’s already underway. This will eventually lead to the re-organization of NK’s government (see examples of the Soviet Union, Myanmar, and Vietnam), and the US would not have to expend any resources to make it happen.
After all, why does the US treat NK as its enemy? What part of the US national interest does it serve to antagonize and escalate tensions with NK, a small, poor country of minute significance in the world? In the beginning, NK was an enemy because it was Communist, but that isn’t a relevant reason now, 26 years after the end of the Cold War. Is it because NK has nuclear weapons? India acquired nuclear weapons secretly, but the US isn’t its enemy. Is it because NK oppresses its people? Human rights abuses and dictatorships aren’t nice, but are they worth risking a nuclear war over? No. Is it because NK doesn’t speak nicely about the US, calling it a “blood thirsty imperialist?” Again, is the US going to risk catastrophe just because some failed state calls it names to its oppressed population?
The US’s enemy-ship with NK has been taken for granted for a long time. The truth is that there does not exist a clear and convincing basis in the national interest of the US for it to risk nuclear war through a coercive foreign policy with NK. NK has no resources, no wealth, and is not threatening any resources or wealth of the US. If a conflict does take place between the two countries it would conflict for conflict’s sake. NK seems to part of its long-running habit of picking fights with small states (Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria) on shaky ideological/moralistic rationale.
In the case of NK, honey will catch more flies than vinegar.