North Korea last year intensified its nuclear and missile development program launching 23 missiles over 16 tests, and conducting its sixth and most powerful nuclear explosion.
This has brought Pyongyang to the verge of becoming a nuclear-armed state. How can the international community deal with this security conundrum?
Many North Korea experts have concluded that the country's objective in developing nuclear weapons is regime survival, and having gone this far in developed them, there are no circumstances under which it will abandon its prized possession. Such a defeatist attitude must be avoided.
If North Korea refuses to respond to denuclearization negotiations, the international community is left with only two possibilities: to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power or to attempt to resolve the situation through military action. As these options are dangerously unacceptable, the U.S., Japan and their partners must keep pressing for negotiations.
Recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power fails to amount to a resolution of the crisis and would destabilize the regional security situation. Looking at North Korea's past behavior, there is a significant risk that it may utilize its nuclear weapons in a threatening manner. Moreover, legitimizing North Korea's nuclear status could be a catalyst for the domestic debate of the nuclearization in South Korea and other states including perhaps Japan. The global nuclear non-proliferation regime could be undermined.
With North Korea's nuclear program apparently inexorably poised to achieve the capability to strike the U.S. mainland, the U.S. almost certainly perceives this threat as an unacceptably grave security risk. It is then within the realms of possibility that the U.S. could make a pre-emptive strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities. However, the possibility that the U.S. could reliably take out all of North Korea's retaliatory capabilities is remote. A U.S. pre-emptive strike against North Korea thus risks descending into a full-scale military conflict or even a nuclear war.
Both of these scenarios are too costly to be entertained. A diplomatically negotiated resolution is the only way to resolve the situation without calamitous costs. This challenge requires a "P3C" approach (Pressure, Coordination, Contingency planning and Communication channels).
Applying maximum pressure on North Korea through economic sanctions has been a mantra among those seeking to get tough on North Korea, including U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Yet sanctions themselves should not be the objective. Sanctions are a means to an end: to draw North Korea into credible denuclearization negotiations. This will require some patience. In the past it has been argued that the failure to quickly to implement sanctions simply affords North Korea more time to develop its nuclear weapons and missiles. However, now that North Korea has all but acquired the capability to strike the U.S. mainland, time is on our side because Beijing has finally been prodded into action.
It has been approximately six months since China started to implement sanctions in a serious manner in concert with the international community. If we stay the course and let sanctions seriously bite, we will be able to demonstrate to North Korea that it will not be allowed to survive with its nuclear weapons.
With the reported participation of North Korea at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang and postponement of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises until the end of the games, it is likely that tensions will calm during this period. The thawing of North-South relations is to be welcomed as it eases regional tensions.
But it must be kept in mind that any Olympic detente will not directly address the nuclear issue. North Korea may calculate that by cozying up to the South it can draw it in, divide trilateral cooperation between the U.S, Japan and South Korea, and ease some of its sanctions pain. To guard against such manipulation, intensive coordination between the United States, South Korea, China and Japan is critical. Over the past decades, inconsistent approaches have given Pyongyang room to drive wedges. This time we must learn from our past mistakes and maintain an absolutely united front.
Applying maximum sanctions pressure on North Korea also carries the risk that the country may explode or collapse. Coordination between the U.S., South Korea, China and Japan must include contingency planning to prepare for a worst-case scenario on the Korean Peninsula. This should include the questions of securing North Korea's nuclear weapons as quickly and efficiently as possible after a collapse, and dealing with possible refugee flows. While in the past, such as during the first North Korean nuclear crisis of 1993-1994, Japan did not possess the necessary legal framework to fully cooperate in contingency planning, the passage of the September 2015 security-related bills means it is now positioned to make a positive contribution.
Finally, in order to avoid miscalculation leading to unnecessary violent conflict, it is imperative to maintain communication channels with North Korea, including with Kim Jong-un's inner circle. The international community must ensure that North Korea understands in no uncertain terms that if it denuclearizes it will be allowed to survive, but with its nuclear weapons it will not.
If the international community stays the course and follows through with this coordinated approach, the time will come when the North Korean regime will realize that to survive it has no option but to denuclearize through a diplomatically negotiated resolution. Failure to uphold the coordinated approach, however, means that a cloud of instability, and the threat of devastating costs and loss of life, will continue to hang over the region.
Hitoshi Tanaka, former deputy minister for foreign affairs and a key adviser to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at Japan Research Institute.