North Korea -- either China helps, or all bets are off

In addressing North Korea, let’s cut to the chase.  North Korea fired its second long-range ballistic missile in a month, again over Japan.  The launch comes after six nuclear tests.   What was always important is, on all available indicia, now becoming urgent.   A complete rethink is needed. 

The apparent and stated intent of that country’s rogue leadership is to develop, test and deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile which can carry a nuclear warhead to American and allied soil.  America cannot allow that to happen, full stop. 

Western options are few, but they do exist.  Yes, tightening economic sanctions via ramped-up United Nations resolution must be tried.  Multilateral sanctions should be aggressively pursed; we should birddog all allies, as well as China and Russia, to conform.

But, cold splash of realism:  Lack of international unity and shared conviction, dissembling and non-cooperation by China and Russia, well-honed evasion, revenue from illicit transactions, such as drug trafficking and illegal banking, and or purchases of Russian-made Ukrainian heavy-lift rocket engines, will undermine those sanctions.

What is left?  Before we get to targeting missile launchers, ICBMs in boost stage, and command, control, communications and computers, which are last resorts, what else can be done? 

Credibility is everything in this space. The Trump administration has it, where the Obama administration did not, but time is short.

First, one hopes the State Department, in coordination with Defense and our intelligence community, is opening a clear, convincing, private and high-level conversation with China, in which one point is being made:  If North Korea launches a missile that hits American soil or allies, we will hold China directly responsible, since they have the ability – right now – to cut off 90 percent of North Korean exports, compelling a leadership implosion or North Korean rethink of both their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  

Second, that private channel to China should make clear that, for self-defense and defense of others, wholly consistent with international law, the United States will take firm, decisive, overwhelming military action.  This military action will be devastating to North Korea, and may trigger either a wider military exchange or a sudden outflow of up to 25 million refugees to China. 

Third, the private channel should make clear that we do not take war lightly, do not want to war with North Korea – let alone with China – but that we will not shrink from defending our soil and allies from any kind of ICBM attack.  Indeed, we will preempt any pending attack, and we will effectively deter future attacks with whatever means are necessary.  No joke.

Fourth, the private channel should make clear that, for face saving purposes and in fact, China’s immediate intervention as a truth-speaking intermediary, peace maker and source of scrolling back reckless North Korean actions – that is, to stop the North Korean nuclear program and end ballistic missile launches – China will be widely praised. 

More to the point, China will receive both public plaudits and, from the United States, favorable economic cross-over benefits.  That is, the net gain for China of immediate, effective, all-in engagement to stop North Korea will generate security, diplomatic and economic benefits for China. 

Publicly, no acknowledgement of details of such an appeal needs or should be discussed.  This writer has no knowledge of any such appeal.  But, frankly, this is one way out of the imbroglio, a way that directly discusses and activates mutual self-interest for the elevated security of all affected nations, which turns out to be – all nations.  

A final, possible avenue for resolution is well-crafted public diplomacy which demonstrates to North Korea that further pursuit of this ICBM and nuclear testing foolishness is not just dangerous, but represents an existential threat to their leadership and the entire nation. 

Credibility is everything in this space.  The Trump administration has it, where the Obama administration did not, but time is short.  Private and public diplomacy, backed by clear, no-kidding demonstrations of preparedness to strike immediately, even at enormous cost to the region and globe, should be front and center.  My earnest hope is that, this column notwithstanding, those two tracks are already being pursued with vigor.

Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush, former naval intelligence officer and litigator. He served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses.