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Which option would be more effective in containing North Korea: Through unity with South Korea, diplomacy, or military intervention?

Question submitted by Seram Lee, from Pepperdine University, March 29, 2013

Answered by: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy


North Korea has conducted nuclear tests, launched long-range rockets, declared its withdrawal from the 1953 Korean armistice and recently threatened the United States with a preemptive nuclear strike. Its provocative actions and statements have alarmed its neighbors and the United States and have raised tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Given that South Korea faces the greatest risk from North Korean provocations, U.S. policy coordination with South Korea is an essential first step in fashioning an effective approach to North Korea. The U.S. alliance commitment to the defense of South Korea means that the two countries are constantly engaged in active policy coordination and defense planning related to threats posed by the North.

South Korea would have to accept either direct U.S. diplomacy or military intervention with North Korea before either option would be implemented. Both the U.S. and South Korean governments must agree on a common strategy and they have historically been wary of North Korean efforts to divide the alliance.

Recently, North Korea has unilaterally cut off dialogue channels with both South Korea and the United States. But even without a near-term option for diplomacy, the United States and South Korea are unlikely to attempt to forcibly bring about regime change in North Korea, given the likely costs of a North Korean military response against South Korea.

North Korea's ratcheting up of tensions requires South Korean and U.S. military forces in Korea to be prepared to defend against North Korean military incursions. Resumption of diplomacy will only be possible when North Korea signals it is ready to resume dialogue and all parties agree on an agenda that includes both tension-reduction and denuclearization.