On Monday, American student Otto Warmbier died in the U.S. just six days after being released from a 17-month-long detention in North Korea. The circumstances surrounding his imprisonment will no doubt bring increased pressure for President Trump to take some form of retaliatory action against North Korea, but beyond releasing a statement or two condemning the North Korean regime, it's a near certainty that the White House won't respond to Warmbier's death in any substantive manner.
Trump did release a statement Monday, expressing condolences and also proclaiming:
But there's a reason Trump can't do much more than that, and it has nothing to do with Warmbier himself. Although the country is condemned for its repressive laws, documented human rights abuses, and general belligerence toward the west, American leaders simply don't have any good options for dealing with North Korea. Every course of action that could potentially weaken the regime comes with massive, massive downsides, and all of them would almost certainly risk making things much worse than they are now.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that North Korea has both nuclear weapons and, as is less frequently discussed, substantial stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. As a result, any attempt to retaliate militarily against the regime is extraordinarily risky, as it could result in a catastrophic loss of innocent human lives. Even a narrowly targeted action aimed solely at dismantling the country's weapons capabilities would carry this risk.
At the same time, the country's leadership has brutalized the North Korean people, regularly imprisoned American citizens, and might soon be capable of hitting the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon. It's natural to believe that America therefore must do something about North Korea — but what?
Mark Bowden laid out America's options for approaching North Korea in an extensively researched report in The Atlantic — none of them are even remotely appealing.
The U.S. could, for instance, launch an all-out invasion of North Korea. The American military is strong enough that it would almost certainly succeed in taking down the Kim regime, and just as importantly, there's still time to do this before the country develops the ability to launch a nuclear weapon all the way to the mainland U.S.
But while North Korea doesn't yet have the technology to nuke U.S., it does have the capacity to nuke South Korea and Japan, two American allies that host American military bases and, in combination, around 62,500 American troops. A nuclear strike in either country would probably kill millions of people within several hours, perhaps including tens of thousands of Americans. There is a strong moral case to be made that this simply isn't worth the risk, especially in the absence of an eminent, credible, and specific threat from North Korea.
Another possible option for Trump would be to invade the country not to topple Kim, but to take out the country's nuclear weapons system, thus taking the worst case scenario — nuclear war — off of the table.
But even the most optimistic analysts estimate that doing this would take a minimum of 30 days. This would be more than enough time for Kim to use chemical and/or biological weapons on either U.S. forces or South Korea and Japan. Moreover, there's no reason to assume the U.S. would succeed in taking out North Korea's nuclear facilities, given that the country is very good at hiding them. As such, this option could produce a nightmare scenario in which the U.S. demonstrates that it's both willing to attack North Korea but also incapable of doing so effectively, thus drastically weakening America's hand and emboldening the North Korean leadership.
What about covert action? Could the U.S. send in special forces to assassinate Kim, thus avoiding a widespread military conflict and paving the way for a more moderate leader, perhaps one who wants to denuclearize the country?
The biggest problem with this option is that it would be borderline impossible to pull off. Kim is believed to be extremely paranoid about an attempt on his life, and according to one South Korean lawmaker, has taken to traveling only at dawn and in other people's cars, rarely appearing in public, and so on. North Korea's border control and air defenses are very strong as well, and previous coup attempts against the regime have all failed. Just as importantly, it's possible that whomever replaced Kim would be every bit as hostile as he is.
The rest of the options are just as problematic. Sanctions? There are already loads of sanctions in place against North Korea, and none have tempered its nuclear ambitions or rhetorical belligerence. Global diplomatic pressure? That's been tried, too, and it didn't work at all.
All of that being said, it's worth keeping some perspective here. It's entirely possible that, despite how it may seem, North Korea has no designs on attacking the U.S., South Korea, or Japan. It is wholly within the country's interests to frequently threaten the West but never actually carry out any military action, and there's a strong argument to be made that Kim's ultimate goal is merely to create the perception that he might attack as a deterrent against any military action by outsiders. From that perspective, the problem is still bad, but perhaps not quite as bad as it seems.
North Korea may be an international pariah, but it's also more or less immune from foreign intervention. The country's leadership has ensured this, over the course of many decades, by engineering a situation wherein the downsides of attacking the country always outweigh the upsides. Although it sounds unconscionable for the U.S. to simply ignore the country and allow the status quo to perpetuate — especially now that Warmbier has died — that may be the least bad option available.