North Korea is one of the most complex foreign policy questions in the world today. The basic assumption running American policy from the Pentagon, is that credible deterrence and coercive diplomacy are a function of capability, national interest, and signaling. This can be seen when the US sends a carrier group to hot spots worldwide. The problem is that this assumption is wrong. For starters, there is no formula for coercion, because coercion is highly intertwined with the context of the situation. Furthermore, if there was a formula it would have coercive diplomacy, and credible deterrence is a function of capability, national interest, and reputation for resolve in conflicts– not signaling. To quote foreign policy expert Van Jackson (read his credentials here), signaling is “bullshit”. Signaling is valued by the Pentagon because they think it provides a cheap way to demonstrate dominance. They are wrong. Singling means nothing without resolve, and a reputation for resolve does not need signaling.
To further complicate this mess, there’s North Korea’s military capability. While as a general matter, the North Korean military would be one of the worst in the world, once you adjust for size, it does provide multiple problems. First off, they have the fifth largest active military, but the problem is much worse. In reality, their entire population is a military that has been taught two things from birth. That the evil US imperialists would slaughter them if the regime did not protect them, and that their dear leader is a god worth dying for. Even with a massive advantage in quality, the US and her allies would struggle to fight an army of zombies comprised of innocent civilians, for both tactical and obvious moral reasons.
Another problem provided by North Korea is their air defense. North Korean air defense is one of the most extensive on the planet. While these systems can be suppressed, this task cannot be done with a relatively safe assumption of pilot safety like it could be done in Iraq or Libya. To get an in-depth look at how difficult North Korea’s air defense could be to penetrate, see this article from the National Interest.
Then we have to deal with the China problem. China supports the North Korean regime for two main reasons; the neither want massive refugee flows coming into China from unskilled laborers who do not speak Chinese, nor do they want the American alliance to be right on their border. In any deal with China over North Korea, both of these would have to be dealt with, otherwise, any intervention risks a Chinese reaction and an escalation into World War Three.
Lastly, we have to deal with North Korean artillery and nukes. Less than thirty miles from North Korean controlled territory is the South Korean capital of Seoul, a city of ten million innocent civilians. Any conflict risks the slaughter of millions of innocent South Koreans, assuming that the North Koreans only keep their onslaught limited to rocket artillery and shells. If they went nuclear, the death toll could be far worse. If North Korea did go nuclear, they would then pose a threat to nearly forty million Japanese civilians in the Greater Tokyo Area. This must be kept in mind.
Now knowing all these factors, what is the best option for dealing with North Korea? Nothing. For over sixty years the Korean peninsula has maintained stability and peace. While, sadly, the upper half is completely impoverished under an authoritarian regime, any military action would not be a cake walk. It would risk an escalation into the worst military conflict since Vietnam, millions dead, nuclear escalation, and even a tailspin into World War Three with China. The risks are simply too great for a situation that lacks strategic urgency. While North Korea is a fan of saber rattling, the last sixty years has shown they lack any credibility for coercion. The VAST majority of their threats are empty, and while they will soon be able to strike the mainland United States with a nuclear weapon, a far better alternative would be a permanent freeze on the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs organized through Chinese coercion. If we do take military action, it should be done only to keep North Korea from going critical with their nuclear program, and be as surgical as possible to limit blowback.
A soft power solution is a preferable end to every conflict. When diplomacy fails, violence begins. Every effort should be taken to avoid a military confrontation. International relations are not a game– millions of lives hang in the balance. Donald Trump cannot solve this crisis with his bombastic negotiation style and tweeting about fake news. It takes an effort from a competent team. A small national security council staff, Secretaries Mattis, and Tillerson and Jared Kushner will not be enough to solve this problem. We actually need an ambassador to South Korea and Secretaries of Defense and State for South East Asia. In effect, our current foreign policy is like an army, but without mid-level officers. Donald Trump also needs to learn how to work with allies, instead of destroying our international bonds. This is the problem with electing an outsider. He got into a mess that he was completely unprepared for, and now we are playing a game of chicken with nukes and millions of lives in the balance with a President on a learning curve.