Frustrated with NKorea? Welcome to The Land of Lousy Options

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A dictator stands on the verge of possessing nuclear missiles that threaten U.S. shores. A worried world ponders airstrikes and sanctions.

North Korea in 2017, right?

It’s actually China in the 1960s and ’70s, when Mao Zedong’s government staged a series of bold nuclear and missile tests. Outsiders eventually learned to live with China as an established nuclear power, even looking to Beijing, so far futilely, to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

According to North Korean propaganda, the authoritarian nation run by three generations of the Kim family has been a nuclear state for years. With five nuclear tests of increasing power and the launch this past week of its first ICBM, observers are beginning to recognize what is still technically a taboo in government circles: North Korea is actually backing that boast up.

Over the decades, the United States and its allies have tried, or seriously contemplated, “surgical” military strikes, sanctions, isolation, diplomacy and pushing China to do more.

So far, nothing has worked in what academics call “The Land of Lousy Options.”

What follows is an examination of what might be done as North Korea barrels over the world’s nuclear red line.


There’s little doubt that U.S. B-2 bombers, F-22 tactical jetfighters and a barrage of cruise missiles could take out North Korean nuclear facilities; eliminating scattered missile and delivery systems would be much harder.

But it’s what comes next that scares many.

North Korea has assembled along the border a huge number of artillery systems within striking range of much of greater Seoul’s 25 million people. North Korean missiles can reach the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea and the 50,000 in Japan.

Jonathan Pollack, an Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution think tank, wrote this past week that pre-emptive military action simply isn’t credible because it would “entail incalculable levels of destruction and loss of life in South Korea and Japan, including to American citizens and military personnel.”

An analysis last year by the private U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor, however, raised the argument that the “price paid” for a surgical strike should be weighed with the “future potential costs” of trying to rid the North of its nukes after it has a nuclear strike capability, or of Pyongyang actually using those weapons.

“Following this logic, there is a compelling case to be made that the cost of military intervention right now is justified, purely considering the alternatives,” the analysis said. “Almost any price would be acceptable if it meant avoiding a nuclear conflict in the future. But the nature of policymaking is such that leaders are judged by present costs and not by those that could occur down the line.”