Op-Ed: No one wants an arms race, but high-tech weapons are America’s best shot at containing North Korea

President Donald J. Trump holds a drone as George Mathew, CEO and Chairman of Kespry, explains how it works during an event at the White House in Washington on June 22.
President Donald J. Trump holds a drone as George Mathew, CEO and Chairman of Kespry, explains how it works during an event at the White House in Washington on June 22.
(Olivier Douliery / EPA)

With threats, bribes, diplomacy and sanctions, American presidents of both parties have sought for 25 years to try to halt, or at least slow, North Korea’s quest for a nuclear arsenal — to no avail.

Though the brinksmanship of the last few weeks has subsided, President Trump still faces the prospect of a madman — Kim Jong Un — in control of a nuclear arsenal. What the United States and its allies must now do is find options between conventional war, or even nuclear holocaust, on the one hand, and appeasement on the other. The answer could be robotic, cyber, and space weapons — if we have the will to deploy them.

Three types of technology hold promise for facing down North Korea and similar threats.

First, drones and robots. They already have been used for pinpoint strikes on terrorist leaders and insurgent forces in the Mideast. More advanced drones could potentially locate and destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenals, research facilities and missile sites. Robotic naval vessels and submarines could blockade North Korea, and manned and unmanned forces could form a layered anti-missile shield.


New technologies give the U.S. and its allies an opportunity to preempt looming threats or respond quickly with proportional force in a crisis.

The United States should also unleash cyber capabilities it has steadily built over the last decade. Computer viruses alone can’t prevent North Korea from launching nuclear missiles, but they could degrade the Kim regime’s ability to conduct research and development, test and control weapons and gather intelligence. Cyberwarfare could also complement economic sanctions by freezing North Korean offshore bank accounts, paralyzing communications and disrupting Chinese companies that continue to trade with Pyongyang.

Third, with launch costs falling (thank you SpaceX), and the capabilities of precision-guided munitions improving, the United States could rush the development of an anti-missile system. Though still on the drawing board, space weapons will be able to target intercontinental ballistic missiles during their initial boost phase, when the large plume of their engines makes them easiest to detect and their slow upward ascent makes them most vulnerable.

Using advanced technology should appeal to a commander in chief who rails against the “waste” of American blood and treasure expended abroad and at the same time deplores “the very sad depletion of our military.” “Fire and fury” and “America first” mesh poorly, unless technology is employed to resolve the paradox.

The potential is clear. In the Kosovo air war, the U.S. Air Force dropped graphite bombs to disable the Serbian electrical grid; in the Iraq invasion, allied air power crippled Saddam Hussein’s military and civilian transportation network. New technologies can create those pressures — and more — with far greater effect, less permanent damage and less risk to troops. They can be deployed quickly and precisely in a crisis, and they provide strategic deterrence as well.

The main obstacle to deploying such weapons will be hearts and minds in the West. There are already calls to ban new weapons because they are destabilizing. United Nations officials, for example, attacked President Obama’s drone campaign because it made it too easy to wage war. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, recently called artificial intelligence “the greatest risk we face as a civilization” and predicted that it could trigger wars. These critics fear a new technology arms race that will encourage the promiscuous use of these weapons.


Every advance in warfare has met with such arguments. The Catholic Church and European aristocrats tried to ban the crossbow. During World War I, it was argued that long-range artillery, aerial bombing and submarine attacks violated the laws of war by removing the face-to-face element of combat. This summer, 122 nations joined a treaty banning nuclear weapons, and the International Court of Justice has come close to declaring them a violation of international law.

And yet there is every reason not to limit our ability to bring dangerous nations to heel, not least because new technologies give the U.S. and its allies an opportunity to preempt looming threats or respond quickly with proportional force in a crisis.

The U.N. charter and modern warfare conventions frown on preemption; nations can use force only for self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. But violations have been tolerated: President Reagan bombed Libya in retaliation for a terror attack on U.S. soldiers at a Berlin nightclub, Israel destroyed Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors, and President Clinton launched cruise missiles against Iraq for barring inspections of nuclear sites. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations consulted the U.N. before launching the Stuxnet virus to disrupt Iran’s uranium processing facilities.

Developing and deploying more sophisticated robotic, cyber and space weaponry may amplify an arms race, but the key word is “amplify.” Our adversaries are already off and running — witness the Russian, Chinese and North Korean hacking of U.S. government and commercial systems. Our rivals are unlikely to obey a treaty limiting such weapons, except as a ruse. (They see cyberweapons, for example, as a counterbalance to our superiority in conventional and strategic weapons.) Treaty inspectors are unlikely to detect secret cyber or robotics programs, as we have learned from trying to monitor nuclear R&D programs.

High-tech weaponry challenges long-cherished arms control norms, but it is already too late to prevent our rivals from developing and using these technologies. Should sanctions, threats and diplomacy fail, the U.S. may need to strike first, but with the caution and precision afforded by new technology.

John Yoo is a law professor at UC Berkeley, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former official in the George W. Bush Justice Department. He is the co-author of “Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules of War,” to be published in September.

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