- Washington lacks options to peacefully halt North Korea's ballistic missile program, experts warned
- But the alternative course of action — a military operation — could be far too dangerous
Washington has no clear options to peacefully rein in an aggressive Pyongyang, political analysts said following the rogue state's second intercontinental ballistic missile test in a month. That stalemate could heighten the chance of risky military action.
Aside from President Donald Trump's Twitter tirade at China, Washington has so far responded to Friday's launch with bomber jet drills over the Korean Peninsula — a joint mission with Seoul and Tokyo — and a test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense defense system.
Recent comments from U.S. officials over the weekend indicated frustration with diplomatic initiatives, implying a growing inclination for military operations.
In a statement, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said "the time for talk is over," adding that the U.N Security Council would not be holding an emergency session this time — a departure from previous situations. Following the pariah state's July 4 launch, Haley warned that military procedures remained on the table.
If required, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces stood ready to respond with "rapid, lethal, and overwhelming" force, General Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy said in a Saturday statement.
"I'm not sure the direction we're headed in is curbing tensions," Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at Rand, told CNBC on Monday. "If we're not going to negotiate, which seems to be what the [Trump] administration is saying, we're likely going to be taking actions — missile launchers, bomber overflies, and so forth — that will actually heighten tensions."
The White House has long expressed frustration with conventional policy measures to halt Pyongyang's nuclear ambitious, namely multilateral discussions and sanctions, instead suggesting the need for a more forceful approach. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly acknowledged that two decades of American efforts to denuclearize North Korea had failed.
"I don't believe there's any diplomatic solution that gets North Korea to give up its weapons," said Phillip Lipscy, assistant political science professor at Stanford University.
A military solution is now the primary scenario to deal with North Korea, added David Roche, president and global strategist at research firm Independent Strategy, who said he believes the West could launch a military strike on North Korea within six months.
"The U.S. has two options: either blow the head off the North Korean regime and deal with a collapse five times the size of the East German collapse or pointedly take out as many of these missile sites and nuclear facilities as possible," Roche told CNBC.
But such offensive measures present a worrying set of long-term consequences.
In fact, any kind of attack would likely lead to a major war, Bennett warned.
"The military option is very risky and costly," added Lipscy. "If they do undertake some kind of military action, you're talking about a potentially catastrophic situation with estimates upward of millions of casualties."
Ultimately, anything Washington does in this situation could trigger more conflict, Lipscy continued. "I don't really think there are any good options the U.S. can take here...there is no credible way the U.S. can defend against the kinds of things North Korea could do in retaliation to any U.S. action."
Instead of force, Bennett suggested Washington strategically play to North Korea's insecurities.
"North Korea is always sensitive to our efforts to affect its internal politics. Kim Jong-un was paranoid in killing his older half brother — he's worried about the survival of his regime, so we should be taking action to make him more worried to convince him that he has to be responsive to our concerns."