Missouri first lady Sheena Greitens says the U.S. and international community should take several steps to deal with North Korea’s growing threats. Greitens, who is a Mizzou political science professor and expert on Korean issues, tells Missourinet that missile defense should not be the U.S.’s first line of defense.

Dr. Sheena Greitens

“The reality is, missile defense is expensive,” says Dr. Greitens. “What we should fundamentally be trying to do is to deal with North Korea’s behavior and the North Korean program. That’s the source of the problem and that’s where our efforts should really be focused.”

The U.S. is working on its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, otherwise known as THAAD. The missile defense program is meant to shoot down North Korea’s shorter range ballistic missiles.

She says the U.S. should offer North Korea a very clear deal about rolling back its nuclear weapons program. Greitens is not confident that strategy will work but she says it’s the best one the U.S. has. Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2012, North Korea has noticeably ramped up its rate of missile and nuclear testing.

The country recently launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test about three years earlier than projected. The missile is believed to have the capability of reaching Alaska and some of the western states. Greitens says the U.S. missed a key opportunity with North Korea in 2012 to apply economic pressure and prevent the country from crossing a threshold.

“Most missile programs, when they begin, have a 50% or greater failure rate. The failure rate that we have seen is not uncommon. What has been fairly unusual is that North Korea has followed each failure with a successful test more quickly than expected,” says Greitens.

She says the U.S.’s military exercises with South Korea must continue no matter what. The training drills by land, air and sea are meant to serve as a show of strength.

North Korea and China once proposed freezing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the U.S. halting its military exercises. Greitens says that’s not a good trade for the U.S. to make.

“Military exercises are perfectly legal. Tons of countries do them. The United States and South Korea have always done them as part of an alliance that’s in U.S. law. The U.S. shouldn’t trade its legal activities for a temporary stop to North Korea’s illegal weapons program,” says Greitens. “What I think we should do is keep doing those exercises and really aggressively look for ways to constrict the money and the material that is flowing into North Korea’s weapons program to make sure that it doesn’t progress any further.”

According to Greitens, China is a very important piece of the puzzle. Money talks. She thinks Chinese businesses should be given a tough choice.

“I think you have to give the banks and the businesses that do business with North Korea a very clear choice and say ‘Look. Previously, you’ve been able to do business with North Korea but put your money in bank accounts that then have access to the U.S. financial system. You can’t do that anymore,’” says Greitens.

About 80% to 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China. The U.S. has also asked the Philippines and India, which also do trade there, to end those ties with North Korea.

Russia also has a role to play, according to Greitens. She says a two-track strategy might be necessary.

“We’re not only talking about constricting normal, legal trade to convince North Korea to change course,” says Greitens. “We’re also talking about really cutting off illegal sources of money because those could go into a black hole in North Korea and could be used for any purpose, whether it’s propping up the regime or funding the weapons program. So Russia, I think, is important both from this legal, economic perspective but also from its illicit economic activities.”

Greitens says the U.S. has struggled to understand North Korea’s decision making.

“North Korea, I believe, is rational. I believe what it does is geared at ensuring its own survival, but it doesn’t make those calculations quite the way that we might,” Greitens says.

Her concern is not grasping North Korea officials’ train of thought will lead the U.S. to miss a move.