Anyone can be excused for thinking the stalemate we find ourselves in with North Korea is a bloody mess without any really good outcomes, and they might well be right. It isn’t the first time we’ve been stalemated with North Korea, though the stakes and potential consequences are rising with a nuclear DPRK. So here I come to wade into this situation, which has proven intractable since the Korean War drew to a close on July 27, 1953, not with a victory for either side, but with an armistice that stopped the fighting and left both North and South in a state of war that has continued until today.
I don’t claim to be a Korea expert, and neither am I a proficient war gamer or military planner, so I want to make that clear up-front. But I do know a bit about international relations and can see what often works, and doesn’t work, in dealing with rogue states like North Korea, and also have peripherally followed U.S. dealings with Pyongyang over the past couple of decades. So those are my bases for offering the analysis that follows.
Unfortunately, in the current situation it’s easier to engage in Monday Morning Quarterbacking, to look at all the things done wrong by previous administrations rather than offering any reasonable alternatives looking forward. But those past bad decisions can offer some guidance about what doesn’t work with North Korea, if not what might.
I’d like to start by debunking some of the myths that people hold about North Korea and its leadership. Perhaps the most common one is that Kim Jong-un, the chubby 33-year-old with the funny haircut who serves as current Supreme Leader of the DPRK, is a madman, deranged, or some sort of a nut case. While no one can argue that he’s not idiosyncratic or a tad bizarre, that is a long way from being mentally deranged. Was Hitler, or Saddam, or Stalin, or Mao, or any of the other mass murderer-leaders of the past century, mad? On some level, perhaps, but that does not mean they did not run their respective states according to a plan and set of objectives that they had set out, and drove toward them with a singular purpose of mind and relentless brutality. It is no different with Kim Jong-un, really, and a huge mistake to simply write him off as a nut job.
The other thing I think it’s important to understand, and which even I have only recently come to better appreciate, is that the common goal of all of North Korea’s leaders, including its current one, is reunification of the Korean peninsula and people under one government – theirs. While Kim Jong-un threatens and goads the U.S., it is more because he sees the U.S. as a threat to his regime and his goal of Korean unification. The flip side of that, of course, is that the U.S. stands as the major defender of South Korea’s existence and freedom, and relinquishing that role is really not an option. So we are pitted in an intractable face-off with the North Korean regime.
One would think that the prosperity and progress South Korea has made in recent decades would serve to bolster the South’s position and eventually lead to the demise of the North from within. Still, it’s estimated that something like 30 percent of South Koreans would like to see unification with the North, and a large proportion of the North’s population, brainwashed as they might be, are staunchly loyal to their country, as well as to its regime and ideology. The thought that we might see a popular uprising that leads to the overthrow of Communism in the North, such as what we saw in Eastern Europe, is at best wildly optimistic and, at worst, delusional. What we see in North Korea is not just imposition of a social, economic, and political system, but a cult of personality, built around the Supreme Leaders, and the pervasive feeling of persecution and misunderstanding by the outside world.
Which leads us to the current stalemate and how to approach it. Arguably, previous administrations never should have allowed North Korea to become a nuclear state. The time to take firm action to prevent this really goes back to the Clinton administration, but instead of direct action that administration resorted to wishful thinking, offering concession after concession to North Korea, instead of standing firm and not allowing itself to be duped. Things weren’t much better under the Bush administration, and of course the Obama administration preferred to ignore the whole thing rather than stand up to Pyongyang. So now it falls to the Trump administration to try to clean up the mess it has inherited from previous administrations.
There has been much drivel issued in the media about how Pres. Trump’s threats to Kim Jong-un are inflammatory and risk destabilizing things. It’s hard to imagine how things can be any more destabilized than they were anyway, and that destabilization lies with North Korea. Trump was just trying to term things in the same kind of rhetoric as Kim Jong-un uses. I don’t know if the President actually expected that to get through to the Supreme Leader any more effectively than the usual diplomatic garble does, but it’s more humorous than anything, since what Kim Jong-un and the North Koreans do and say goes beyond rhetoric. Like any bully, they can use any kind inflammatory language they like, but speaking back to them in their own language doesn’t deter them from being any more of a bully than they are. So like North Korean rhetoric, I have to assign Trump’s rhetoric as being issued for public consumption rather than anything operational.
My big concern about the President’s threats is that they verge into the category of Obama’s useless “red line” threats to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It’s not a good strategy to make threats one can’t or won’t enforce, just like it’s not usually a good idea to pretend you have a gun when dealing face-to-face with an armed gunman. The temptation is there to call the question, and Kim Jong-un showed himself as perfectly willing to call that question, just as Assad did with Obama, when he threatened to send missiles near – though notably not at – Guam. Not the threat of a madman, but the carefully calculated response of a clever actor on the world stage.
The administration did score an enormous victory this past week in getting an unanimous vote of the UN Security Council – including China and Russia in support – approving massive new economic sanctions against North Korea. This was a real accomplishment on the part of our UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley. Now one might wish that more than the third of the DPRK’s exports would be subject to the sanctions, but I would think that the limitation was important to gaining the support of China and Russia. Additionally, I think China’s oil exports to North Korea were not subject to the sanctions for the same reason.
The problem with any sanctions is that, with a regime such as North Korea’s, most of the impact falls on the general population rather than on the regime itself. North Korea has shown repeatedly that it’s willing to let its people starve to death rather than give in to demands of the outside world. This time will probably be no exception to that. So I wouldn’t put a huge expectation on the sanctions making any difference.
From anyone’s perspective – including even that of China and Russia – the real danger that North Korea poses is its nuclear capability. It certainly is a real and immediate danger to South Korea and the other countries of the region, and once it develops a means of delivering a nuclear warhead, a real danger to the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. And that delivery capability might not be that far off.
Much has been said that the North Koreans don’t have an ICBM that would enable a nuclear warhead to survive re-entry, and also that their ability to aim their missiles is less than competent. But they are making strides, and resolving these issues is clearly on their agenda and possibly within their grasp. But given these shortcomings, the North Koreans may still be able to inflict severe damage on the U.S. with only one, or a few, nuclear warheads that they send into orbit and detonate while over the U.S. This would lead to the dreaded electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which would effectively cripple our entire electronic and electric infrastructure, putting us into something close to the Stone Age. And we are completely unprepared for such an attack. A North Korean satellite already passes over the U.S. every 12 hours, so that capability is not simply notional.
There also is the threat of cyber warfare, for which we’re also not particularly well prepared, and in fact North Korea could already be engaging in that kind of attack against us.
Again, arguably, it fell to the Clinton administration to have eliminated North Korea’s developing nuclear capability at that time, when it was far less evolved, dispersed, and dug-in than it is now. But that didn’t happen, and the carrots offered then were ineffectual, so now we have to deal with it. The question for the Trump administration – or any administration, really – is whether we can live with a nuclear North Korea or not. Given the risks as I’ve outlined them, I think we might have a real and, if not present, future danger in allowing North Korea to further develop its nuclear capability. In saying that, I know similar things were said about Soviet, and then Chinese, and even Pakistani and Indian nuclear capabilities, and of course now Iranian nuclear capability, too. The one thing that differentiates the DPRK and Iran from the other cases is that we’re dealing with what have proven themselves to be rogue states. Whether that makes them any more prone to using nuclear weapons than the world’s other nuclear bad actors is a key question, but one I’m reluctant to delve into at this point given its scope.
If we are to attack North Korea militarily and not inevitably cause a blood bath in the South – the 10-plus million people living in Seoul, South Korea’s capital, are just 30 miles from the DPRK border, across which lie enormous artillery batteries that would rain death on Seoul – it would have to be a kind of blitzkrieg (lightning war) to simultaneously take out North Korea’s conventional military capability along with its nuclear and launch infrastructure. I think initially it is more critical to take out the conventional capability and then go back and finish rooting out and wiping out the nuclear infrastructure.
One problem is that North Korea today is not Poland in 1939, when Hitler conducted his blitzkrieg against it, and then against France and the Benelux Countries in 1940. How we could mass sufficient air, sea, and land power to make such a coordinated attack against North Korea before the North figured out what was going on and mount a preemptive strike against the South is, at best, an open question. One hopes that our intelligence about North Korea is better than it appears, but the North almost assuredly has its own intel capability, augmented by whatever support it would and does receive from China and Russia. While if we ever felt the need to launch a military attack against the North this – in my assessment – almost certainly would be how it would need to be done, it admittedly still isn’t a great answer.
Anyone who reads my essays knows that I like to offer solutions to the problems considered. I wish I could do that in this case. Alas, I don’t feel I can, other than in general prescriptive terms. I think we do need to keep North Korea from further developing its nuclear capabilities, for the reasons presented, but how we achieve that remains elusive. I think it will take action – diplomatic, economic, political, or other – by China to influence its maverick neighbor to curb its activities, but while that possibility might be growing closer, it’s still not something we can count on any time in the immediate future. Perhaps in the trade off of favors, threats, benefits, and costs the President is engaged in with the Chinese, something could be on the table to achieve this.
So there we are, in stalemate, with neither side about to resign, as they might were this simply a game of chess. Comments, thoughts, countervailing or other arguments welcomed.
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