North Korea continues to push toward its goal of possessing nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach as far as the U.S. mainland. Since mid-year, North Korea has test-fired two long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, sent a couple of mid-range missiles flying over Japan and staged the country’s most powerful nuclear test. U.S. President Donald Trump, whose visit to Asia includes stops in Japan, South Korea and China, stoked a war of words when he labeled North Korean President Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and said that if the U.S. had to defend itself or its allies against North Korea it would “totally destroy” the country. Kim called Trump a “dotard” and warned of the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
1. Who leads the world’s response to North Korea?
South Korea, the U.S. and Japan bear the brunt of Kim’s threats and constitute the front line of the international response. The alliances among them have been tested, as when Trump described South Korea’s approach toward its neighbor as "appeasement." A greater challenge for the three nations is getting China, North Korea’s most important ally and biggest trading partner, and Russia to work with them. United Nations resolutions going back to 2006 demand that North Korea abandon all nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missiles programs.
2. What’s the climate for Trump’s trip?
His visit began during a relatively quiet period, following the series of North Korea tests that provoked Trump’s outbursts. China recently moved to end a yearlong spat with South Korea over its deployment of a U.S. missile defense system that Chinese leaders complained upset the strategic balance in the region. And South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, called on North Korea to take part in the Winter Olympics being held in his country early next year.
3. What has the U.S. done to punish North Korea?
Trump signed an executive order effectively allowing the U.S. to impose a full trade and financial embargo on North Korea through the use of secondary sanctions targeting non-U.S. banks, companies and people who do business with the country. Analysts say those sanctions, unlike the multitude of measures that came before, have real bite. The U.S. has also allowed South Korea, under a treaty with the U.S. originally aimed at preventing a regional arms race, to put more powerful payloads on its missiles. It also pledged to let Japan and South Korea buy more "highly sophisticated military equipment" from the U.S. Trump has threatened a trade embargo against countries that do business with North Korea.
4. Is a pre-emptive military attack an option?
Such a strike might take out North Korea’s known nuclear and missile sites but would potentially carry a huge cost, even if North Korea reacted only with conventional weapons. That’s because North Korea has too many facilities spread out over too much terrain to destroy simultaneously, and South Korea’s capital, Seoul (population: 10 million), is within artillery range of the border.
5. What’s China’s position?
China says it wants a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula, and its leadership has urged the U.S. and North Korea to make conciliatory gestures as a way to revive negotiations. China’s ruling Communist Party wants to avoid military conflict, which could send North Korean refugees flooding over the border, threaten the party’s grip on power and bring U.S. troops to its doorstep. China supplies about 90 percent of North Korea’s energy and much of its food. It suspended coal imports from North Korea and collaborated with the U.S. to get the UN Security Council to expand sanctions.
6. So the U.S. and China are working together?
They’ve pledged to, but the two have quarreled over the value of China’s efforts. After U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson characterized China’s cooperation on North Korea as "uneven," the U.S. took steps in June to penalize a Chinese bank, a Chinese shipping company and two Chinese citizens it claimed had worked to help North Korea evade sanctions. In July, following North Korean long-range missile tests, Trump tweeted, "China could easily solve this problem!”
7. What do South Korea and Japan say?
South Korea’s Moon came to office in May promising a new era of engagement with North Korea, but at the same time he’s pushing for a military overhaul to keep Kim’s regime at bay. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has strongly backed Trump’s line, repeatedly saying that he favors pressure over dialogue to resolve the issue.
8. What would be the point of talks?
Diplomats have long talked about seeking a grand bargain first suggested by retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Lloyd Vasey: In exchange for economic assistance and security guarantees, North Korea would agree to verifiable denuclearization. This may be unrealistic, since Kim is unlikely to agree to shed his arsenal. A senior North Korean defector said in December 2016 that as long as Kim is in power, the country won’t give up its nuclear weapons “even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards.” U.S. officials are concerned that initiating talks would be seen as rewarding irresponsible behavior by North Korea. Others argue that talks could achieve a freeze on Kim’s program, which — left unchecked — would multiply the numbers of warheads and missiles at his disposal.
9. What are North Korea’s capabilities?
U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea has as many as 60 nuclear bombs and can miniaturize warheads to fit on missiles, the Washington Post reported in August. The September nuclear test, of what North Korea claimed was a hydrogen bomb, was more than 10 times stronger than a test a year earlier. The explosion was big enough to “pretty much end an American city” if successfully delivered by an intercontinental ballistic missile, according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on nuclear issues. After North Korea’s ICBM test in July, the U.S. confirmed that the missile was capable of reaching at least some U.S. states. Kim claims the entire U.S. is now in range.
10. Is accepting North Korea’s nukes an option?
No major country has said yet that it will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. Some analysts have suggested that’s the best way to ease the current tensions. But accepting North Korea as a nuclear power could lead South Korea, Japan and perhaps Taiwan to seek their own nuclear arms — undermining, perhaps fatally, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. South Korean politicians are already discussing the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were removed in the early 1990s.
The Reference Shelf
- A related QuickTake on North Korea’s nuclear program.
- A Bloomberg infographic on North Korea’s military buildup.
- Bloomberg News showed how money funneled through China makes it harder to apply sanctions to North Korea than to Iran in the past.
- Bloomberg explained why joining the nuclear club is an obsession of North Korea’s leaders.
- A research paper from the U.S.-Korea Institute outlines the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
- Bloomberg View argues that Trump’s linking trade and security is a negotiating strategy that’s doomed to fail.
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