Consider A Naval Blockade To Stop North Korea

Gregory Keeley National security analyst
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Despite U.N. sanctions and international condemnation, the North Korean regime of Kim Jung-un has continued its drive to develop nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States and our Pacific allies.  The Trump Administration seemingly has only two potential responses, both of them bad.  Option one, direct kinetic military action to halt Kim’s development of nuclear capabilities; or option two, learn to live with a nuclear-armed despotic regime. A third middle option with significant historical precedent is available – a physical Naval blockade of North Korea.

Like sanctions, blockades are designed to slowly choke the recalcitrant nation to submission.  Unlike sanctions, a blockade provides the capability to monitor, intercept and enforce restrictions on what can go in and out of the target nation while providing a powerful psychological and diplomatic instrument.  A naval blockade in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea would prevent the DPRK from obtaining essential raw materials and equipment, including refined petroleum, broadcasting equipment, heavy machinery and military spare parts. A naval blockade also serves to choke export income, in this case the lucrative coal and iron exports the regime needs to quite literally keep the lights on.

Opponents would argue the U.S.N. is stretched too thin and not up to the task.  This year there have been two fatal collisions and two non-fatal accidents in the Pacific involving US Navy destroyers and commercial cargo ships.  The subsequent inquiry found that the operational tempo of PACOM elements was too high and that senior leadership within the surface warfare community is lacking.  To date seven senior US Navy commander have been fired.

To this end, it should not be the responsibility of the United States to act unilaterally, nor of the U.S.N. to carry the entire weight of a proposed blockade of North Korea.  U.S. allies in the region would support the initiative of a U.S. navy led blockade. Key players in this effort would be Japan and Australia, with support likely from Singapore, South Korea, India, Taiwan and potentially NATO forces.

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, (JMSDF) boasts the fifth most powerful navy in the world with one of the largest economic exclusion zones to patrol. While the JMSDF has no aircraft carriers, their destroyers and frigates are modern and equipped with the Aegis combat system. Recently, the JMSDF began deploying air assets aboard its Hyūga-class destroyer.

Australia, another island nation in the Pacific, is the only country to have supported the United States in every military conflict since World War One.  The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has been deployed in concert with the U.S.N. as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to patrol the coastal waters of the Persian Gulf since the beginning.  The navy is built for coastal operations, with shallow water diesel-electric submarines, helicopter landing ships, frigates, and the Armidale class patrol boat, one of the most effective littoral combat platforms in the world. I served with the RAN during the early 2000’s blockade of illegal alien vessels.  It proved a tremendously effective “reverse blockade” of the Australian coast.

The Naval blockade is not a new concept, and historically has enjoyed significant success. Arguably the most noteworthy action of the modern era was the 1962 US blockade of Cuba, which effectively ended Soviet attempts to establish missile bases on the Caribbean island.

Arguably the most effective blockade in history was the British Royal Navy blockade of the First French Empire during the Napoleonic war. Britain was able to keep its shipping lanes open, and effectively cut off crucial supplies to Napoleon’s armies, ultimately winning the war and establishing itself as the sole maritime super power.

Kim Jung-un is likely not a student of “Rule Britannia,” and will not willingly abandon his nuclear weapons program.  Kim deems his nuclear capability as essential to maintain the requisite fear and funds to stay alive and remain in power.  Seen in this light, President Trump’s U.N. threat to destroy North Korea was a prescient tactic.  If Kim actually fears for his life, believes his hold on power and his lifestyle are in peril, he could be forced to pivot away from nuclear weaponization. Contrariwise, the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and millions of South Koreans are endangered, which may prompt Kim to assume President Trump is bluffing.

While it remains unlikely North Korea would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the U.S., can we and our allies accept a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons? To compound this dilemma, North Korea has a wretched history of selling military technologies to rogue states and non-state actors who would deploy them willingly.  A nuclear-armed North Korea is simply not an acceptable option.  Short of direct military action, a multi-national naval blockade of North Korea is not only palatable; it may be the only alternative.

Gregory Keeley is a retired Lt Commander with service in both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.  He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pacific.   LCDR Keeley also served as Senior Advisor to the Vice Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee (Rep Jim Saxton) and the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee (Rep Ed Royce) in the US Congress. Follow him on Twitter

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