A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor during a successful intercept test, in this undated photo provided by the US Department of Defense. Handout via Reuters
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor during a successful intercept test, in this undated photo provided by the US Department of Defense. Handout via Reuters

As the world watches for another potential round of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, debate rages over the most effective policy options to deal with the rising nuclear threat from Pyongyang. The four basic policy options under discussion could perhaps be oversimplified as isolation, engagement, action and acceptance. Elements of each are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but none appears to have the full support of the key regional players – or even consensus within individual countries.

Isolation is the current general track employed to dissuade the North from completing its nuclear program. It is based on the premise that in a globalized world, the primary goal and need of every nation is to engage in regional and international trade and maintain access to a global economic network. It is in many ways, however, a reactive and punitive measure. The North carries out a nuclear or missile test and countries independently or under United Nations auspices carry out sanctions. The assertion is that the desire for economic engagement will outweigh whatever calculus led to the behavior in the first place. The problem with isolation (which has been taken to the extreme in the North Korean case by also in many cases refusing any formal diplomatic ties) is that it clearly has failed to work. North Korea considers the risk of not having a viable deterrent greater than the cost of losing formal access to the global economic system.

Engagement has been tried in-between and at times parallel to isolation, with highly mixed results. The Agreed Framework, the Six Party Talks, inter-Korean summits and the Kaesong joint economic zone all served to delay North Korean nuclear developments, but did not stop the program. This has soured many toward any form of engagement, yet the question to ask, as with isolation, is whether the core North Korean calculus was being addressed in the engagement process.

Although there were talks, agreements and even economic and political exchanges, these clearly did not provide benefits that exceeded the North’s perception of the need for a nuclear program. The North used the nuclear program to strengthen its position at the negotiating table, but there were limits to the trust engendered by either side in negotiations and dialogue. Agreements have consistently faltered. One major challenge is the frequency of change among the dialogue partners – North Korean leaders change rarely whereas U.S and South Korean leaders change relatively frequently, as do policy directions. The lack of regular formal communication channels only exacerbates this.

Action is now being discussed in ways not seen in years. There are open discussions of decapitation strategies to remove the Kim leadership, and of precision strikes to disable the main nuclear facilities. Even in China there are open discussions about potential military options, and the role Beijing could take (to ensure that China’s interests were protected should non-diplomatic means fail). The basic questions for such military action remain. Are all of the North’s nuclear and missile sites known, are they targetable, and how will the North respond? Would a strike against the North’s nuclear infrastructure trigger a wider Peninsular war, or a flood of refugees across both borders? Finally, is the North already so far along in its program that it may have a nuclear response, even if only locally or regionally?

A closer look at the discourse surrounding military action highlights the focus less on stopping the program than pre-empting any North Korean nuclear attack. In other words, it appears that the opportunity to use military means to stop or set back the nuclear program is nearing an end, and the focus instead is on being able to strike before the North launches an attack on a neighbor or the United States.

And this blends into the final option – acceptance. Certainly no country in the region has any plan to formally acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, but there is a growing sense that, rhetoric aside, it may very well be a reality. The increased focus on missile defense, for example, could be part of preparations for a military option, but it is more directly related to the expectation that the North will have missiles that will need to be intercepted. In both South Korea and Japan there are open, if not yet official, discussions on the potential need for the development of indigenous nuclear weapon capabilities. In short, there is a growing sense that the window to stop the North’s program is closing, and that a nuclear-armed North Korea may soon be a reality, however politically unpalatable.

Rodger Baker is vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor.com, a U.S. based geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm headquartered in Austin, Texas. 

Rodger Baker

Rodger Baker is vice-president of strategic analysis at Stratfor.com, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm headquartered in Austin, Texas. Baker leads Stratfor's analysis of East Asia and the Pacific and guides the company's global forecasting process. Since 1997, he has played a pivotal role in developing and refining Stratfor's analysis and geopolitical framework.