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Opinion

Editorial: North Korea’s missile test was ominous, but a military response could be disastrous

In this photo provided by South Korea Defense Ministry, a U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile is fire
In this photo provided by South Korea Defense Ministry, a U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile is fired during the combined military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea at an undisclosed location in South Korea Wednesday.
(Associated Press)

North Korea’s testing of a missile capable of reaching U.S. soil is an ominous development. For residents of Los Angeles — which is routinely cited as a potential target for such a weapon — it is especially so.

For the time being, North Korea does not appear to have a missile that can reach this city, nor has it figured out how to equip one with an effective nuclear warhead. But we have to face facts. North Korea’s capabilities are growing rapidly, and efforts by successive U.S. administrations, the United Nations Security Council and even China have failed to restrain the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong Un and his predecessors.

Given that reality, President Trump might be tempted to give up on diplomacy and take preemptive military action to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program and perhaps the communist government along with it.

There is no guarantee that diplomacy will solve this problem; but a reckless military response will surely make it worse.
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After all, the president declared last week that “the era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed.” On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said: “The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies. One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces.”

But military action could be disastrous, leading to war on the Korean peninsula and the death of thousands of people. As the president’s military advisors will surely tell him, even “surgical” airstrikes designed to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons probably would trigger retaliation by the North against South Korea, using conventional weapons already amassed on the border. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis has warned that the result “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

Some who argue for a preemptive strike justify it on the grounds that Kim is irrational and that once North Korea is capable of launching a nuclear weapon — against South Korea or a distant target in the United States — it won’t be deterred by the certainty of massive retaliation. But while Kim is a tyrant, there’s no indication that he doesn’t respond rationally to incentives and disincentives. (That doesn’t mean his possession of nuclear weapons isn’t dangerous. They allow him to consolidate his power and intimidate other nations and they increase the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the region.)

If military action is off the table, what should the United States do?

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First, the U.S. should continue to lean on China to press North Korea to rein in its nuclear ambitions. Trump once held out great hope for Chinese intervention, but lately has expressed disillusionment. On Wednesday he tweeted: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!”

But Trump shouldn’t give up. The truth is that China has made some efforts to pressure North Korea, supporting sanctions at the Security Council and restricting imports of coal from North Korea. But it should be pressed to do more, including support the new Security Council resolution Haley said the U.S. would introduce.

Second, the administration should leave the door open to negotiations with North Korea — including direct talks. It’s understandable that the administration would be reluctant. to sit down with the North Koreans. Not only is it distasteful because the Kim regime is a egregious violator of human rights, but in the past, North Korea has made commitments to the U.S. and other nations and then reneged on them.

The administration seems to have ruled out participating in any negotiations that would result in a freeze on nuclear or missile tests by North Korea as opposed to a dismantling of that country’s nuclear weapons program. On Tuesday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that the U.S. “will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.” But perhaps there is a way for talks to take place without either side insisting on preconditions. If nothing else, a continuing channel of communication might reduce tension and prevent events from spiraling out of control.

There is no guarantee that diplomacy will solve this problem; but a reckless military response will surely make it worse.

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