Time for long-term solution with North Korea?
February 12th, 2013
12:10 PM ET

Time for long-term solution with North Korea?

By Heather Williams, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Heather Williams is a research fellow in international security at Chatham House in London. The views expressed are her own.

Whether the latest North Korean nuclear test destabilizes Northeast Asia in the short-term depends on how it is handled within the U.N. Security Council. The major players in the region have made stability a priority, and are likely to continue to do so. And certainly, if stability is defined as the absence of conflict or risk of immediate conflict, all signs suggest the region will indeed remain stable. After all, China’s continued economic growth is dependent on regional stability, South Korea and Japan are terrified of war with nuclear-armed North Korea, and the United States is anxious about becoming embroiled in another regime change.

But regional players will likely still have to take some sort of action against a belligerent and increasingly aggressive North Korea if there is to be a meaningful chance of maintaining stability in the long term. The hard part, though, is balancing short-term and long-term gains.

The risk for destabilization could come in two forms. First, from North Korea itself. Pyongyang is growing confident in its technological prowess and may attempt an even more provocative role in the region. Although Pyongyang primarily cares about the survival of the Kim dynasty, recent actions suggest that keeping the military happy within the country is more important than the risks run through provoking its neighbors and Chinese benefactor.

More from CNN: World reacts to nuclear test

Nuclear weapons are North Korea’s primary bargaining chip, and that they should play that chip now suggests some kind of internal struggle within Pyongyang. In addition, while in the past China played a restraining role with North Korea, the latest test suggests a shift in this dynamic. Prior to the test, China strongly and publicly urged North Korea not to test, threatened to cut food aid if a test was conducted, and has already summoned a North Korean representative to Beijing.

Second, the international response may either intentionally or unintentionally spark a military conflict on the Korean peninsula or the complete economic and political collapse of North Korea. For example, direct provocation or attacks may prompt North Korea to retaliate against South Korea and Japan; or additional sanctions may further undermine the Kim regime and lead to its collapse for internal reasons. It is a strategic paradox.

The international community is therefore running out of tools. There are few options left for sanctions, and additional penalties would run the risk of causing further suffering to the North Korean people and provoking a military conflict. Leaders in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington may have to decide between the risks of destabilization over the short-term and the potential long-term gains of rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The path of least resistance may not necessarily be the most stable over the long-run. In addition to this superficial regional stability, continued North Korean testing and nuclear advancement risks the stability and credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Unity of response is key to counter-balancing these destabilizing pressures, wherever they may arise. A strong and perhaps innovative Western response – whether that be diplomatic or a creative military approach – stands the greatest chance of success, as long as more than short-term factors are taken into account.

And that latter option would also certainly send a loud message to Tehran.

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Topics: Asia • North Korea • Nuclear

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. rightospeak

    So much propaganda ,so few solutions. How about unification of Korean people to have peace ? The problem was created by Roosevelt to keep the pockets of war profiteers full. There have been discussions of unification since 1945 but somehow it is not happening while the Korean people suffer broken families. The North has most of the raw materials -get the picture ! The media just pumps out lies after lies to keep us in perpetual WAR .

    February 12, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      The problem is rightospeak, is that Roosevelt and Stalin made the mistake of dividing Korea at the 38th parallel, each country occupying half of that country. Roosevelt should have let the Russians occupy the whole of that country and today Korea would be united and the Korean War(1950-1953) would have never taken place!

      February 12, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  2. john2397

    I surprised why the UNSC did not give an ultimatum for military action to N. Korea for the violation of the UN resolutions? Only because, N. Korea has NO OIL (ii) not a Muslim Nation and more importantly it has openly shown her might to be an outlaw nation including a very clear desire to bomb all her enemies including the USA. If any Mullah of Iran has even whispered some thing that they will test Nuke, all the dogs around the West would have started barking at once to take military action, even without any warning or ultimatum..

    February 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  3. JAL

    Does failure make sense at this point?

    February 12, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  4. islandman

    Would it be possible to target the leadership without crippling the military? If one could target the little s**t with a small tactical nuke and unite the two Koreas,..... maybe a deal could be made beforehand with China and Taiwan where China regains much like Hong Kong. Then all we'd have left on the table is autonomy for Tibet. Hey, this is doable.

    February 12, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • SayItSam!

      Kim is as much a puppet as a tyrant. Kill the head, the beast survives.

      February 16, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  5. zaeed

    congratulations to north korea now use that nuke and a-bomb dublin ireland and ghana accra.

    February 12, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  6. alonelywarrior

    I am interested to learn the author's take on what a 'creative military approach' might look like. Big words. Your thoughts, Ms. Williams?

    February 12, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Reply
    • SayItSam!

      Not from the West, but from the East.
      They should put down their own bad dog.

      February 16, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The young leader Kim is defiant and brazen. He doesn't seem to care about the international outrage. Very soon the world will see how China's leadership under Xi handles this unrly neighbour. Beijing had suspended economic assistance to the North in 2006 in protest against a series of provocative missile launches. Nevertheless Pyongyang doesn't seem to lack supporters within China's military, Communist Party and the Politburo Standing Committee, who are sympathetic to a stable North Korea.

    February 13, 2013 at 7:06 am | Reply
  8. von Messerschmidt, Dr.

    "Koreans" play one dangerous anti-Western and anti-American game. It's no solution, if we not stop also South Koreans. Koreans have very dangerous anti-Western secret networks, that not abide from eliminating Westerns (also in Western countries). Stop Koreans now. Stop South Korean businesses, limit unnecessary imports of Korean products. At present moment no other solution is not possible.

    February 14, 2013 at 6:55 am | Reply
  9. SayItSam!

    Czechoslovakia or Hungary style coup instigated by China.
    Objective – Remove top of Kim Dynasty from power – Vet or Replace the structure beneath the top levels, and leadership timber that they release from the NK Gulags.
    Withdraw after pacification, restoring 'buffer state' status to NK.

    Risks....China keeps rolling south? SRSLY this is NOT in China's interest as it craves expanding ligitimacy in the New World Order.

    February 16, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  10. Jack

    China needs North Korea as a buffer zone between them and South Korea. Just as long as North Korea doesn't start a nuclear war, China doesn't really care.

    February 17, 2013 at 8:31 am | Reply

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