North Korea: Have We Reached the Point of No Return? | Wilson Center

North Korea: Have We Reached the Point of No Return?

North Korea's test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4 has significantly heightened the crisis on the Korean Peninsula – and has left the Trump administration with some very tough choices.

If time were ever an ally in resolving the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, it certainly isn't now. How will Washington respond to this latest act of belligerence? What realistic options does the Trump administration have to deal with a challenge that has bedeviled its predecessors? Have we reached the point of no return?

Listen to our Ground Truth Briefing with three veteran analysts of North Korea and the nuclear issue.

Key Quotes:

Jane Harman

“I made a fact-finding trip to Pyongyang 19 years ago. The facts have changed – they’re worse – and they’re in the news and the options for the U.S. are worse… The basic question is whether we’ve reached a point of no return with North Korea on the nuclear issue, where escalation, or even military conflict, is inevitable.”

Aaron David Miller

“[The Trump] administration not only will face the [North Korea nuclear issue], but it’s going to intensify under its watch. If the administration won’t or cannot bomb or preempt or prevent because it’s simply too risky and likely to set off an escalation on the Korean Peninsula, and it claims it won’t negotiate anything beyond rollback or denuclearization, and playing the China card has its limits, [then] doing nothing, which is the default position, will allow the North Koreans to develop not only an ICBM, but all of the components for reentry.”

­Jean H. Lee

“Overseas or abroad, nuclear weapons force much bigger, much more powerful nations to pay attention to North Korea, and perhaps eventually pay for them to give up their weapons in exchange for aid and other concessions. It remains to be seen whether that will happen, but there’s no doubt that these nuclear weapons force countries like the U.S. to pay attention to North Korea. And [the North Koreans] are very aware that this is the card that they have, that this is the one thing they have to get the world to pay attention.”

“Here in South Korea, there is no panic. It’s business as usual. South Koreans are accustomed to these tensions, but things are a little bit different this year. One of the factors is a new president in the White House, and there are very real concerns amongst South Koreans I speak to that he may act rashly or impetuously and perhaps order a military strike that could trigger a conflict.”

“The North Koreans want to negotiate. They do want to have a conversation or discussions with the Americans, but they want it to be on their terms.”

James Person

“Deterrence will also work for North Korea, because North Korea’s leaders are, in fact, very rational – and they realize that an unprovoked attack against the United States or its allies would be suicidal.”

“It boils down to the question of capability versus intention, and I think we can say with a degree of certainty that North Korea’s purpose for obtaining these weapons is the preservation of their regime.”

“To outsource the problem to China is essentially asking the Chinese to do precisely what North Korea has most resented. It’s really going to antagonize the North Koreans even further. So, I think [the United States is] the only one equipped to handle this.”

David Sanger

“The past four presidents have indeed kicked this problem down the road… For every incremental step the North Koreans have taken, American presidents have looked at it and said, 'This is awful, we can’t tolerate it, but frankly, it’s not worth the cost if whatever we do leads to the destruction of Seoul.”

“The North Koreans have no interest in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. They believe it would be suicidal… to give up their nuclear weapons. And so what a [nuclear] freeze would do would be to enshrine a current capability. And while that may have been tolerable 15 years ago or 10 years ago… we shouldn’t kid ourselves. We would be freezing them in a position as a nuclear power.”

“The question is, are you looking for something that will delay the problem, which is what other presidents have done and where I suspect President Trump will probably come out in the end, or do you want to do what Mr. Trump has repeatedly said, which is that he’s going to solve the problem… I don’t see what, shy of regime-change, would necessarily result in a solution to the problem.”






  • James Person

    Global Fellow
    Professor of Korean Studies and Asia Programs, JHU SAIS; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS
  • David Sanger

    Former Distinguished Fellow
    National Security Correspondent, The New York Times; and former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center
  • Jean H. Lee

    Director, Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy
    Journalist and former Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Associated Press