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North Korea: Experts Warn Only Way Forward May Be Diplomacy

Trump's presidency has seen tensions ratcheting up over the Korean peninsula.
Image: A submarine-launched ballistic missile was also on display.
A submarine-launched ballistic missile was also on display.Wong Maye-E / AP

For all the talk of naval strike groups and pre-emptive military action, Donald Trump's only option to solve the North Korean crisis could be compromise.

His presidency has seen tensions ratcheting up over the Korean peninsula, with dictator Kim Jong Un's missile testing met with a swift rebuke from Washington.

That uncompromising approach was underscored Wednesday when Vice President Mike Pence told 2,500 sailors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan that any use of conventional or nuclear weapons would be met with an "overwhelming and effective American response."

In return, North Korea has accused the U.S. of creating "a situation where nuclear war could break out an any time."

However, a more subtle melody can be hear underneath these drums of war. Pence said Tuesday that the U.S. was working with allies to "achieve a peaceable resolution" to the impasse.

"With diplomatic and economic pressure we have a chance to achieve our objective of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula," the vice president said in Japan.

Trump also appeared to soften his language, telling Wisconsin's WTMJ radio that "hopefully [Kim] wants peace."

Some analysts say this may be Trump's only realistic option for solving the crisis.

"The situation is extraordinarily complicated and not amenable to either simple solutions or one-off ad-hoc interventions designed to demonstrate American strength," said Professor Hazel Smith at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Kim could easily launch a retaliatory strike against Seoul, the South Korean capital of 10 million people that sits 25 miles from the North Korean border, analysts point out.

Kim would only need the conventional missiles already in his arsenal, rather than nuclear weapons, to kill thousands. Parts of Japan may also be within range.

"There is no certainty that the U.S. knows the whereabouts of all North Korea’s launch sites, and any attack would lead to a devastating retaliatory strike on Seoul," Fraser Cameron, director of the Belgium-based EU-Asia Center, wrote in the Financial Times earlier this month.

He said there was "no military solution to the problem of Kim Jong Un's nuclear weapons."

North Korea is estimated to have at least eight nuclear weapons but not yet the means to miniaturize them in a long-range missile capable of hitting the U.S.

Embarking on a conflict with North Korea would also come with other challenges.

ML Cavanaugh, a U.S. Army strategist writing for the Modern War Institute at West Point, warned of North Korea's "Afghanistan-like geography" that could allow its army to act like "a much better-trained, much better-armed version of the Taliban."

For all Trump's talk of ripping up the rule book, his softening approach is familiar to students of history.

"This administration is following a well-worn pattern traced by every other U.S. administration from Clinton onward," said Smith at SOAS. "All new administrations blame previous administrations for being too weak or incompetent to solve the Korean crisis."

She said described the typical evolution of White House policy. First, the administration begins by "talking very tough at the outset"; then, a senior administration official flies out to Seoul to warn North Korea not to engage in further missile and nuclear tests; and finally, after consulting with allies, they realize that the situation is too complex and precarious to solve by force.

Trump's warnings to Pyongyang have gone further than those of his predecessors.

His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, broke new ground last month when he said that the past 20 years of diplomatic efforts had "failed."

Smith said that while U.S. policy has not achieved its aims, diplomacy in fact has "quite a good record" in recent years — most notably freezing the North's nuclear program between 1992 and 2002.

That's not to say negotiations with North Korea would be easy.

The country wants a nuclear bomb capable of hitting the U.S. because it believes it needs them as an insurance policy against attack.

A defector told NBC News earlier this month that the regime saw what happened to Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, both of whom agreed to abandon their weapons of mass destruction only to be overthrown by Western-backed forces.

"The problem is that North Korea is unwilling to give up the very missiles and weapons about which we are most concerned," said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization based in Washington, D.C.

Negotiations would likely only succeed if the country felt sufficiently protected against foreign attack.

The reasons for foreign intervention might be twofold. Aside from the threat of a missile attack against the U.S. or its allies, the United Nations has called for global action to end North Korea's mass labor camps which it has likened to the horrors of Nazi Germany.

North Korea "would need a cast iron security deal which would guarantee regime survival before they will give up the nuclear program," said Smith at SOAS. "The political elite shares a belief that it is only the nuclear weapons development program that has prevented military intervention."

Others, such as Karako at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, say China is essential to any solution.

The only way to resolve the stand-off peacefully, Karako said, is to convince Beijing to tighten the screw on sanctions against its isolated neighbor. North Korea relies almost entirely on trade with China to prop up its impoverished economy.

"Talk alone isn't going to cut it," he said.

This was a view Trump himself appeared to endorse in a tweet Friday.