When David Pressman would sit down with his counterparts from China or Russia to discuss the provocations of North Korea, he often heard the same message coming across the tables: “You need to talk. You need to talk.”
It was maddening to Pressman, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for special political affairs. Talking works only if both parties agree to an agenda, and the U.S. and North Korea could not even get that far. “The United States is prepared to talk. We’re prepared to talk about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” says Pressman, now a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner. “But the North Koreans are not willing to have that conversation. The North Koreans want to have a conversation that accepts their status as a nuclear power.” That, many argue, is not a difference the U.S. can overlook.
And yet the need for some kind of engagement has become more urgent in recent weeks. North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4 that, in theory, can reach Alaska. It was a remarkable milestone for a country that routinely pledges to annihilate Americans. And it isn’t stopping.
So what is to be done? There are no good options, current and former government officials agree. “You’re not choosing between good and bad,” says Victor Cha, a former National Security Council director for George W. Bush. “You’re choosing between bad, really bad, worse and much worse options.”
North Korea’s nuclear program has bedeviled U.S. Presidents from both parties, across decades. Attempts to curb its program have been shown as transient and flawed. And North Korea’s most potent quasi friend, China, has proved to be reluctant to pressure Pyongyang. President Donald Trump has signaled that he wants action of some sort. In April, Vice President Mike Pence visited the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to declare that “the era of strategic patience is over.” But the new Administration has not backed up its tough talk with a stated strategy, raising concerns from veteran observers. “The worst option is just to threaten without understanding what the issues are,” warns former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Here’s a look at the three main approaches and their complications:
Few think the U.S. can bomb its way out of this. For one thing, North Korea is adept at hiding its missiles, and there’s no guarantee the U.S. could get them all. North Korean retribution would also be fierce–and 25 million South Koreans live within range of conventional weapons, while Japan is also a target. An incomplete U.S.-led military strike on just one facility could cost as many as 1 million lives and $1 trillion, according to one Pentagon estimate given to Clinton-era negotiators. The math hasn’t gotten kinder in the intervening years.
The most immediate at-risk Americans, beyond those living in South Korea and Japan, are the Alaskans, who are betting that U.S. antimissile defenses can intercept an incoming nuclear weapon. Alaska Governor Bill Walker has toured the missile base at Fort Greely and tells TIME that he has confidence in the military’s ability to defend his state of about 740,000 people. “As the threat grows, we feel justified in having a greater military presence in Alaska,” he says. “If something happens on our soil, it’s very, very significant.”
As a matter of policy, keeping a U.S. strike in the mix increases its leverage. But there are doubts that the U.S., South Korea and Japan would agree to an attack simply because Kim Jong Un develops a better missile that can reach the West Coast of the U.S. “If you’re going to have a credible threat of force, you have to mean it,” says Wendy Sherman, a veteran diplomat who negotiated with North Korea in the 1990s. “Is war the preferred solution? Absolutely not, because it will be catastrophic.”
Most observers see China as the state with the most sway over North Korea, given that the majority of its food and energy supplies come from its neighbor to the north. China, however, has shown little interest in materially hurting Pyongyang, despite clear tensions with the Kim regime. For the moment, Beijing sees aggressive sanctions as a step toward the collapse of North Korea, which could yield a wave of refugees and a unified Korean Peninsula, a development that would end with a U.S. ally directly on its border. (The official U.S. position opposes regime change. “We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees,” U.S. Pacific Command Chief Admiral Harry Harris told Congress earlier this year.)
For his part, Trump all but declared it China’s task to curb North Korea–a view he seemed to abandon in a series of tweets when he didn’t think Chinese President Xi Jinping was moving quickly enough. “Cooperation with China is the right approach, but outsourcing to China is not going to work,” says Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador who led talks with North Korea during George W. Bush’s Administration. “I would draw a distinction between asking the Chinese to take care of this versus working with China.”
At the same time, the newly elected President of South Korea, the liberal Moon Jae-in, has signaled an eagerness to bring North Korea to the table through economic incentives and a willingness to break with the U.S. Similar efforts under other South Korean Presidents, including one to whom Moon served as chief of staff, prompted diplomatic differences with Washington. But with Trump now in the White House, there’s little telling how this may be received. Veterans of both parties have been bewildered by a lack of coherent strategy.
Multilateral negotiations helped curb North Korea in the past, including a successful deal in 1994 that delayed North Korea’s nuclear program for almost a decade.
Idealists have argued that direct talks should resume, even without the immediate prospect that North Korea will abandon its nuclear program.
As Joel Wit, who helped negotiate and enforce the 1994 U.S.-North Korea agreement, puts it, “You should start with what is doable.” He proposes an agreement for the U.S. to pull back from military exercises with South Korea in exchange for a verifiable North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, which could lead to further talks. Accepting a nuclear North Korea, if only temporarily, would be a major concession. But Wit says it makes sense, given his view that Chinese pressure and a military strike “are guaranteed to fail.”
Other diplomats suggest that direct talks can be part of broader conversations, especially if they give Kim the recognition he seeks. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has called for the establishment of a low-grade diplomatic outpost in Pyongyang, similar to the U.S. footprint in Havana during the embargo.
“We shouldn’t accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state,” explains Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst for the CIA. “But what’s going to happen is a deterrence and containment policy.”
Perhaps the right nudging could prompt the North Koreans to rethink their nuclear obsession. “They prize nothing more highly than regime survival. And they have come to associate their continued possession of nuclear weapons as supporting regime survival,” says Dan Poneman, an arms-control expert who has worked in the Administrations of three of the past four Presidents. “The job for the rest of the international community is to break that logic.”
–With reporting by MICHAEL SCHERER and EMMA TALKOFF/WASHINGTON
This appears in the July 24, 2017 issue of TIME.