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North Korea Keeps Testing ICBMs (And We Can’t Stop Them)

Hwasong-17 North Korea ICBM
Hwasong-17 North Korea ICBM. Image Credit: North Korean State Media Release.

North Korea, once again, tested an intercontinental ballistic missile this week. It is another among dozens of missile tests this year. This one notably can strike the continental United States. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to continue this year’s aggressive testing regimen. And a seventh nuclear test is widely expected this year too. As usual, our response options to Northern testing are poor.

Can We Negotiate an Arms Control Deal with North Korea?

North Korea does not belong to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Outsiders have very little concrete detail about the number of missiles and warheads it has. The best way to get a handle on that and, ideally, slow down the pace of testing and building, would be a negotiated deal.

Unfortunately, the record of such efforts is poor. The two Koreas have been talking about nuclear weapons since the early 1990s. North Korea has signed multiple non-binding protocols declaring its support for a denuclearized Korean peninsula. Yet Pyongyang has ignored these and marched toward more and better weapons of mass destruction for decades.

Similarly, North Korea has been an untrustworthy counter-party in previous negotiations, including the Agreed Framework in the 1990s and the Six-Party Talks in the 2000s. President Barack Obama made another effort in 2012, which agreement the North promptly violated. President Donald Trump tried too, but despite three high-profile summits, nothing came of that.

We should always keep talking to North Korea – it is too dangerous to ignore – but there is little realistic hope that North Korea will deal profoundly with its nukes or missiles at this point. Kim has even said they are not an area of negotiation.

Should We Sanction North Korea Yet Further?

North Korea is already pretty heavily sanctioned already. The problem is not so much to add more restrictions, but to enforce them.

China and Russia permit North Korea to cheat on the sanctions, and the world’s democracies have struggled to induce them to enforce the rules. This has worsened, unsurprisingly, since the start of the Ukraine War. Russia is now profoundly alienated from the West and has happily looked the other way at North Korean bad behavior to annoy the West.

China too has generally been unwilling to push North Korea too hard. Like Russia, it finds North Korea a useful geopolitical troublemaker. The more the US and Japan focus on North Korea in northeast Asia, the less they pay attention to Chinese encroachments in southeast Asia. China is a formal treaty of the North, and it is happy to look the other way on North Korean sanctions-busting to prop it up and ensure that sanctions do not provoke a regime collapse.

What Defensive Options Do We Have?

This is where the discussion is now leading. In the conferences I have attended this year in South Korea, there is little talk about a deal or negotiation. It is all about defense now.

Trump and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-In, made a vast outreach effort – the biggest ever in the history of negotiation with North Korea, including six summits. Yet North Korea offered very little in those talks and has been very belligerent this year. So unsurprisingly, the discussion has turned toward increasingly risky kinetic options. Hawkish positions previously considered too extreme are now entering the public debate.

Early last year, I argued that the failure of the Trump-Moon détente effort would push the debate toward more hawkish options. I speculated that a naval quarantine, along the lines of the US Navy blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, might be the next step. North Korean sanctions-busting relies heavily on water-borne shipping. Blockading North Korean ports would enforce sanctions where China and Russia refuse to act. This would be economic warfare with a sharp edge.

Hwasong-17 ICBM

Hwasong-17 ICBM. Image Credit: North Korean State Media.

Instead, the debate has swung even further to the right. The current South Korean president, Yoon Seok-Yeol, suggested, as a candidate, that South Korea might preemptively air-strike North Korean missile sites in a crisis. And a large debate over South Korean nuclear weaponization has also broken out. The South Korean conservative party has suggested that South Korea should withdraw from the NPT if the North conducts a seventh nuclear test.

This is the first step toward an independent South Korean nuclear arsenal, for parity with the North. A Southern arsenal need not be large, and the South is also stepping up missile defense efforts. But still, this is momentous. If it happens, Kim Jong Un has only himself to blame. He has relentlessly pushed South Korea into a tight corner where the discussion of more and more radical options is almost inevitable.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; RoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Ezra Teter

    November 19, 2022 at 8:48 am

    This author ignores the fact that we massacred about a third of North Korea’s civilian population during the Korean War. They have never forgotten this and they have every right to defend themselves against us. Just signing an official peace accord with them after more than 70 years would do far more to lower the temperature than anything else. They are a nuclear power and they are never going to give their weapons up because they don’t trust us. We have killed millions of people since WWII. Would you trust us?

  2. TheDon

    November 19, 2022 at 9:38 am

    We can. We should practice shooting each one. Destabilizing uranium.
    But
    We wait.
    Congress no action 3 administrations

  3. KDMaz

    November 19, 2022 at 9:56 am

    Will a naval blockade work considering that there are land borders between North Korea and China as well as North Korea and Russia?

  4. Arash

    November 19, 2022 at 11:44 am

    North Korea should be armed with every weapon America has.

  5. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    November 19, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    Ignore the godless, evil little troll while making absolutely certain we can obliterate his command quickly if needed.

  6. Arash

    November 19, 2022 at 12:49 pm

    From 5 civilized tribes in the 19th century to Libya in 21st, those who tried the path of being nice to America and accommodating it are now history.

    Hats off to North Korea. They speak the only language United States understand.

  7. ATM

    November 19, 2022 at 3:09 pm

    Naval blockade is clearly an act of war and they would have every right to nuke Washington.

  8. 403Forbidden

    November 19, 2022 at 3:40 pm

    All this brouhaha wouldn’t be necessary if mcArthur hadn’t possessed the bidenista brain to orchestrate use of japanese administrators to govern the american-occupied zone of the korean peninsula in the period after aug 1945.

    America certainly casts a long dark & very evil shadow over east asia. Sad. Really sad.

    Now we have another bidenista- brained kamala harris proclaiming america’s right to be hegemonic overlord of the western pacific.

    These bidenista brains aren’t even aware of the massive trains of migrants pressing against the southern borders of the US.

    Haiti, mexico and many many other places in central & south america are embroiled in horribly deep shit, with serious crime, murder, wanton killings, social instability, poverty and countless other muck killing hope and driving people to desperation.

    America indeed casts a long dark and extremely evil shadow not only in east asia, but also in her own backyard as well.

    The world needs someone with the guts and willpower and the means means to pummel north america with super duper ICBMs and remove the source of very dark great great evil from the world.

    Hooyah, babylon, hooyah !!!

  9. John

    November 19, 2022 at 10:28 pm

    South Korea Australia and Japan need to go nuclear.
    US will not be able to protect them

  10. H.R. Holm

    November 20, 2022 at 2:18 am

    The U.S. should declare that any N.K. missile test that passes a certain longitude up and down the Pacific on a trajectory toward the U.S. will be subject to shootdown. After all, how would we know that it is not a live fire missile armed with an EMP warhead, for instance?

  11. H.R. Holm

    November 20, 2022 at 2:31 am

    Don’t know who ‘403Forbidden’ is, but he/she speaks a lot of utter incoherent nonsense, and I for one do not wish to be ‘pummelled’ by anyone’s ICBMs. What supposed ‘great country’ do you live in, hm? If it is evil you are looking for, yes you can start in contemporary Washington D.C.,with Pathetic Joe, Cackling Kamala and the rest of the Democratic Party clan, but don’t forget to go around the world to add in globalist organizations like the World Economic Forum, World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and yes, the United Nations itself. As for Asia, what kind of shadow do you think China casts there? Haiti is a hellhole because it is, well, Haiti. Just look who lives there. And then you also will know a good part of what plagues the U.S. (Thanks to the erstwhile British Empire, if you want to know the originating reason.)

  12. Ezra Teter

    November 20, 2022 at 9:47 am

    The guy who says that Haiti is a hellhole because “look at the people who live there.” should just come out of the closet and admit that he is racist. That country has endured interference from European and American powers since its inception. Once, we sent in the marines to confiscate their entire holdings of gold reserves.

  13. paperpushermj

    November 20, 2022 at 11:37 am

    “(And We Can’t Stop Them) ”
    ___________________________________

    TRUMP DID

  14. ATM

    November 20, 2022 at 12:01 pm

    We gave up our relationship with China to give North Korea a chance to develop ICBMs that can vaporize our swamp ok in DC.

  15. GhostTomahawk

    November 20, 2022 at 12:46 pm

    How about ignore them. It’s the only thing we haven’t tried. They’re not a threat to America. The greatest threat to America are the low IQ voters populating its borders and the oligarchs that control them.

  16. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 20, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    Trump knew how to handle him, and repeatedly made the Leftist Globalist Establishment look like fools.

    Why is Biden such a failure? “Leftist Globalist Establishment”

  17. wesley bruce

    November 20, 2022 at 7:51 pm

    Kim does a better quality rocket launch that NASA did with Artemis.
    There were rumors’ of Kim Jong Un having surgery. Most of us tracking the situation think it was one of the kids not Un himself. I would not rule out that the surgery was facilitated by Trump and was in a western hospital. Kim may be showing off the daughter to show the world and his people it worked.
    Note also the Uniform change with the rocket launcher crew. Much more western than Russian. Everyone, even the generals, are a generation younger. There is nothing in the treaties Kim Jong Un signed with Moon and Trump that bans rocket testing.

  18. David N. Tate

    November 22, 2022 at 2:20 am

    North Korea generates less than $30 Billion annually in GDP. North Korea spends less than $3 Billion annually on defense. This includes the funding that they spend on missile technology. The United States, Japan, and South Korea generate over $25 Trillion on an annual basis. This allows the United States, Japan, and South Korea to spend well over $850 Billion annually on defense. The North Korean economy barely functions and certainly can’t sustain combat operations on the Korean peninsula. It is clear that the United States and her allies, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, hold overwhelming economic and military superiority over North Korea. It is also clear that Communist China provides North Korea little to no economic or military assistance. Nor does the Russian Federation provide economic or military aid to North Korea. North Korea may have nuclear weapons and delivery systems. However the use of these weapons would bring upon them an overwhelming response from the United States and her allies in the Western Pacific. The Six Party Talks included North Korea and worked toward diplomatic solutions that maintained regional stability. These talks were a major part of American foreign policy in the region. It may be a good idea to re-visit the Six Party talks and leverage the US, Japanese, and South Korean economic capabilities. Trade helps keep the peace.

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