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Out of Time in North Korea

NEW YORK – There is a growing consensus that the first genuine crisis of Donald Trump’s presidency could involve North Korea and, more specifically, its ability to place a nuclear warhead on one or more ballistic missiles possessing sufficient range and accuracy to reach the continental United States. A crisis could stem from other factors as well: a large increase in the number of nuclear warheads that North Korea produces, evidence that it is selling nuclear materials to terrorist groups, or some use of its conventional military forces against South Korea or US forces stationed there.

There is no time to lose: any of these developments could occur in a matter of months or at most years. Strategic patience, the approach toward North Korea that has characterized successive US administrations since the early 1990s, has run its course.

One option would be simply to accept as inevitable continued increases in the quantity and quality of North Korea’s nuclear and missile inventories. The US, South Korea, and Japan would fall back on a combination of missile defense and deterrence.

The problem is that missile defense is imperfect, and deterrence is uncertain. The only certainty is that the failure of either would result in unimaginable costs. In these circumstances, Japan and South Korea might reconsider whether they, too, require nuclear weapons, raising the risk of a new and potentially destabilizing arms race in the region.