How the US could respond to North Korea's nuclear threat

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Experts weigh in on a possible US reaction to North Korea’s successful intercontinental ballistic missile test, from further sanctions to diplomacy

Public urgency about the threat of North Korea developing a reliable long-range nuclear weapon capable of striking the US was sharpened by news of what Pyongyang and outside analysts say was a successful intercontinental ballistic missile test.

Any immediate US response must take into account the ability of North Korea to instantly launch a devastating strike against allies in Japan and South Korea, including the almost 30,000 US troops stationed on the Korean peninsula, with chemical, biological or possibly nuclear weapons. Conflict with China lurks as an additional grave concern.

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During the nuclear age, dozens countries started down the path to nuclear weapons but reversed course. And there are cases where countries acquired or inherited nuclear weapons gave them up outright. Often, that happy result was accomplished not through war but diplomacy – agreements that stopped or rolled back a nuclear weapons program.”

Technological solutions – disabling launches through electronic or cyber attacks, or intercepting missiles – will be at best only partially successful. Sanctions may be part of the answer, but history shows that they are not in themselves a solution. The administration has flirted repeatedly with military options, and there is a grave risk that its interest in them may revive, despite the immense dangers. The prospects of destroying the nuclear arsenal – still less conventional stockpiles – would be low, the prospects of devastating repercussions for Seoul high and the chances of a wider destabilisation of the region significant…

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Suppose that US forces could be positioned secretly, and that President Moon were on board. Suppose, further, that Pyongyang’s nukes could be disabled swiftly, its artillery batteries completely silenced, its missile platforms flattened, its leadership taken out—all before a counterstrike of any consequence could be made. And suppose still further that North Korea’s enormous army could be rapidly defeated, and that friendly casualties would remain surprisingly low, and that South Korea’s economy would not be significantly hurt. And suppose yet further that China and Russia agreed to sit on the sidelines and watch their longtime ally fall. Then Kim Jong Un, with his bad haircut and his legion of note-taking, big-hat-wearing, kowtowing generals, would be gone. South Korea’s fear of invasion from the North, gone. The menace of the state’s using chemical and biological weapons, gone. The nuclear threat, gone.

Such a stunning outcome would be a mighty triumph indeed! It would be a truly awesome display of American power and know-how.

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