North Korea's recent nuclear tests and missile tests have renewed debate in Washington on how best to respond to a country that refuses to cooperate with the international community.
The test and threats of military action against South Korea have drawn condemnation from Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a stern warning to North Korea this week. "There are consequences to such actions. In the United Nations, as we speak, discussions are going on to add to the consequences that North Korea will face," he said.
Tom Scheber, the vice president of the Virginia-based research organization National Institute for Public Policy, says North Korea's actions are putting pressure on Washington to prove it is not bluffing.
"Our allies are watching to see how we respond. Iran is watching to see how we respond to North Korea. And similarly, anything that Iran does, North Korea is watching to see is this just U.S. talking tough but doing nothing, and we can get away with this, or are there really consequences for these aggressive actions," he said.
The U.S. Defense Department regularly conducts war games that simulate a response to attacks on the United States and its allies. Top national security officials plot the defensive strategies, while soldiers practice them in the field, as they did in March with South Korean forces.
North Korea has more than a million troops and is believed to have huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Defense Department experts have estimated that an actual war on the Korean peninsula would cause hundreds of thousands of casualties.
Scheber says military action is not necessary, but a strong missile defense system is a critical deterrent. The Obama administration recently announced plans to cut the missile defense budget. Scheber says the president should reconsider. "Failure to do so could unleash this cascade of proliferation and act against the very forces of controlling proliferation that we seek to keep under control," he said.
Retired Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, the former assistant vice chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, also warns of the spread of nuclear weapons. He says President Obama should be considering a regime change in North Korea to prevent this. "In North Korea, it would have to be through covert, through other ways of opening up. I'm not prepared right now to discuss the how. But the fact is, if we don't, it means that Japan, South Korea are going to have to go nuclear to deter this threat," he said.
The U.S. is working with the United Nations Security Council to develop a diplomatic response to North Korea's nuclear test. Pyongyang has ignored past U.N. resolutions demanding it stop testing nuclear weapons. And some U.N. member states have not even enforced punitive sanctions targeting North Korean businesses.
Peter Huessy, of the national security consulting firm, Geo-Strategic Analysis, says Washington needs to take more aggressive action. "One of the things we could do is divestment. Meaning, if you do business with the United States economically, you do not do business with North Korea and Iran, or its entities, or its cut-out groups and so forth, and its businesses. We don't do that," he said.
Huessy also recommends that the Obama administration cut off North Korea from the international banking system. "That is the one leverage you have over them, which we ought to exercise as soon as possible because it's the only thing they understand," he said.
The U.S. successfully employed this tactic in 2005, when it froze about $25 million of allegedly laundered money North Korea had deposited in a Macau bank. Pyongyang only returned to international nuclear talks after the money was released.
Scheber says no matter what the U.S. does, it will need the help of Russia and China. "There is a view that I subscribe to that we only have leverage to the extent that the rest of the international community is willing to work with us and not undermine that leverage," he said.
China and Russia in the past have refused to support stronger U.N. sanctions on North Korea. Their reaction to Pyongyang's latest actions could be a key factor in determining Washington's next step.\