U.S. Flag, North Korea Flag, Political Tension

North Korea’s hydrogen bomb and missile tests are significant but ultimately a distraction from longer-term problems, says Pomona College Politics Professor Tom Le, an expert on security in East Asia. Making sure Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons don’t get into the hands of other nations or groups is the bigger issue –as is the ongoing suffering of the North Korean people, according to Le.

“Although a hydrogen bomb is more devastating, North Korea’s current nuclear arsenal and conventional military capabilities, are enough to inflict unacceptable damage in the first place,” says Professor Le. “The more important thing for the world to deal with now, is how to limit nuclear proliferation and how to address the North Korean humanitarian crises.”

In the meantime, Kim Jong-un’s continued testing of North Korea’s country’s weapon arsenal will continue to test the patience of the U.S. and its allies. “These actions are going to force the U.S. administration to take some type of action,” says Le. “And I don’t see any good options.”

The U.S. can try to shoot down the missile tests, but that risks further escalation. Moreover, if the U.S. tries to shoot them down and fails, it would have a huge demoralizing effect on the alliance and severely harm the credibility of the U.S.

If the U.S. does not take action, North Korea will continue to feel emboldened and gain a credible nuclear capability. In the short term, the U.S. needs to reengage with North Korea and consider concessions – such as halting joint military exercises with South Korea? -- in order to get North Korea back to the negotiating table. “Negotiating via Twitter just won’t work,” says Le.

North Korea’s tests are especially disruptive to foreign diplomacy because they test the strength of the U.S. alliances. Any actions taken to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program will require a united front between the U.S. and its allies, and ideally, the world community.

However, as we’re seeing with President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, there is a high likelihood for disagreement. Moon came into power questioning the need for a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and mildly criticizing the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea, though not so much as to abandon it. President Trump, meanwhile, came in to power criticizing South Korea and Japan for not paying their “fair share.”

The North Korea crisis exacerbates long-standing issues between these allies. Moreover, increased uncertainty about the credibility of the alliances may create opportunities for China to play a more assertive role in the region, which may have negative consequences for the U.S. 

Bottom line: The North Korea crisis is coming to a head, says Le. Either North Korea becomes a nuclear power, destabilizing the region and perhaps forcing South Korea and Japan to reconsider their nuclear policy, or the U.S. intervenes militarily.  Intervention will likely lead to military escalation on the continent, or the collapse of the North Korean regime, leading to massive refugee and nuclear proliferation crises, with the security of their weapons at risk.

“A terrible outcome appears nearly inevitable,” says Le. “And no one seems prepared.”  

Professor Le has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times and his previous op-eds have been published by Foreign Affairs, the Washington PostThe Hill and The Diplomat. He previously did field work in Hiroshima, Japan on a Fulbright Fellowship.