It is important to establish the fact that the North Korean regime is not run by a madman, but a rational actor. Having seen what has happened to dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi that eschewed nuclear weapons and were subsequently toppled, the regime views nuclear weapons as necessary to its survival. Understanding that the North Korean regime is acting in the interest of survival, the methods available for the United States to apply pressure can be clearly seen.
Option 1: Limited Strikes
An attack aimed at crippling North Korea’s nuclear abilities is the lowest level of military intervention available. Conducted by guided munitions launched from either ships or aircraft, these strikes would be aimed at fissile material refineries and suspected launch sites for nuclear weapons.
The difficulty in this course of action is twofold. First, it requires knowledge of the locations of the nuclear weapons. Second, it has the danger of causing the North Koreans to assume an invasion is underway and thus retaliate. The risk of starting a conflict that would result in the deaths of millions of civilians is too substantial for this to be likely. Nevertheless, it possesses the ability to remove North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
Option 2: Stay the Course
The most likely option, and the cheapest in terms of political capital, is the continuation of the United States’ current policy towards North Korea: United Nations sanctions. Sanctions offer no real solution to the North Korean problem. Multiple famines were not enough to force North Korea to halt development of nuclear weapons. As they have shown themselves to be ready to starve their own people, sanctions cannot gain concessions. If the U.S. decides to stay the course, we must accept that North Korea will be a nuclear power and the regime will be militarily unassailable.
Option 3: Expand Anti-Missile Capabilities
Deployment of systems that can intercept missiles has already begun in the form of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. THAAD, however, only possesses the capabilities to shoot down intermediate range missiles. For anti-missile defenses to be capable of nullifying North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, systems capable of intercepting Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICMBs) would be required.
This option is appealing because it has a low political cost. However, this does not permanently resolve the crisis, and anti-missile systems are ineffective against missiles containing several warheads. Moreover, China will oppose deployment of anti-missile systems in its vicinity, as it could be used to nullify its own nuclear capabilities. Yet if the United States manages to come to an understanding with China, deployment of missile defenses could contain North Korea – at least until it develops the technology needed to overcome it.
Option 4: Large-Scale Military Intervention
Another invasion of North Korea would be the most direct means of ending the crisis. It is unlikely, as the American public has little appetite for foreign wars. However, an invasion represents the only sure means of resolving the crisis.
While it may appear to guarantee a nuclear exchange, the risk is actually lower than some of the other options. A large-scale attack utilizing the doctrine of “shock and awe” or the more recent doctrine of full spectrum dominance would utterly paralyze North Korean logistics, preventing a launch. The scope of the strike would increase the likelihood of destroying all the launch sites.
However, beyond the measures of retaliation North Korea might take, China remains an impediment to military operations in the region, as intervention on behalf of