Keep Calm and Carry On—America’s Best Response to North Korea?

TATYANA KRIMUS – This weekend, as Americans enjoyed Labor Day festivities with their loved ones, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un tested the country’s sixth and largest nuclear bomb.[1]

According to the United States Geological Survey, the tremors that followed the explosion had a 6.3 magnitude.[2] The largest nuclear bomb tested by North Korea to date, it drew immediate global criticism from the likes of China, Japan, Russia and France, the U.S. and others.[3]

All seemed to condemn this major escalation by Kim Jong-un, who will soon be able to threaten all of Asia, or at least as far as Japan and Guam, with nuclear weapons, according to military analysts.[4] In as soon as one to two years, North Korea will have nuclear weapons powerful and precise enough to target a major American west coast city.[5] The question many are now asking is: what should the U.S. do about this increasingly real threat?[6] A few options exist, but none seem to provide a silver bullet solution to this crisis.[7]

Economic sanctions
China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner.[8] Considering this, the U.S. could work with China to place pressure on Kim Jung-un.[9] Having faced dire economic times where hundreds of thousands starved to death without giving in to international pressure, North Korea is unlikely to budge. Further, China has been reluctant to antagonize North Korea in the past.[10] Trump’s threats to cut ties with anyone who trades with North Korea are likely to fall on deaf ears, especially given the fact that 21% of U.S. imports originate from China.[11]

The U.S. would need to work with regional allies including China, South Korea, and Japan. Since 1993, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it has been largely disregarding international law since then.[12] The U.S. will need to seek support from the UN Security Council, and even if the allies band together, the current North Korean leadership does not seem amenable to negotiations.[13] Not to mention that North Korea is already subject to strict U.N. sanctions without much success.[14]

Pre-emptive strike
“The military options are all bad,” Michael Hayden, the former director of the NSA and CIA, told CNN News. “They’re not zero. We have got them – but none of them are good.”[15] Military options include the use of modern U.S. nuclear weapons against Nouth Korea, which would result in mass civilian casualties and still would not guarantee immediate surrender.[16] Using nuclear weapons could further anger and embolden the North Korean leader.[17] Alternatively, the U.S. could join South Korea and other allies for an all-out ground war, which would prove costly, deadly, and likely politically unpopular.[18]

Not everyone is concerned, however. Catherine Dill, Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said, “[t]he rhetoric and actions from North Korea during this period of tension don’t mark a significant departure from past periods of tension in my view.”[19] But the risks of miscalculation, over-reaction, and fatal error certainly loom large.[20] One thing is clear: while the U.S. cannot accept North Korean nuclear power, there may be no other option.[21]

[1] David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun, North Korea Test of Nuclear Bomb Amplifies a Crisis, N.Y. Times, Sept. 2, 2017, at A10.

[2] Id.

[3] UN Condemns ‘Outrageous’ North Korea Missile Launch, Pyongyang Says More to Come, Reuters (Aug. 29, 2017, 8:11 PM),

[4] Anthony H. Cordesman, To Deter North Korea, We Can’t Pussyfoot Around, CNN (Aug. 31, 2017, 4:55 PM),

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Mark Bowden, How to Deal with North Korea, The Atlantic,

[8] Mahita Gajanan, Which Countries Trade with North Korea? Fortune, (last updated Sept. 4, 2017).

[9] Id.

[10] Jonathan Marcus, North Korea: Does Latest Nuclear Test Mean War? BBC News (Sept. 4, 2017),

[11] Gajana, supra note 8.

[12] David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun, U.S. Urges Fuel Cutoff for North Korea, Saying It’s ‘Begging for War,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 4, 2017),

[13] Marcus, supra note 10.

[14]  Sanger and Sang-Hun, supra note 12.

[15] Hayden Not Surprised by North Korea Test (CNN television broadcast Sept. 3, 2017),

[16] Bowden, supra note 7.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Anna Fifield, Are We on The Brink of Nuclear War with North Korea? Probably Not, Wash. Post (Aug. 11, 2017),

[20] Id.

[21] Bowden, supra note 7.

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