Neither Negotiation Nor Nuclear Strike: How The U.S. Can Disable The North Korean Threat
Picture taken on July 4, 2017 and released by North Korea’s official KCNA agency shows the successful test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images/AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS)
Over the last few weeks, North Korea twice tested intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States; the United Nations Security Council adopted its strictest sanctions yet on North Korea; the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that the North has successfully miniaturized nuclear weapons; President Donald Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”; and the Korean People’s Army in turn announced preparations for “an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam,” an American island territory home to 160,000 civilians and 6,000 military personnel.
Two decades of allied efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s weapons program have come to naught. In Washington, this has been a thoroughly bipartisan failure, with presidents of both major parties responsible for missteps in tackling the challenge.
It’s only a matter of time before North Korea marries a miniaturized warhead with an ICBM capable of reliably delivering it to an intended target.
Out of options?
The rapid-fire pace of developments and Trump’s promise of literal fire seemingly has much of the Twitterverse believing that end of times are upon us. People who should know better have concluded that we’re out of options. For example, respected scholar and journalist David Rothkopf tweeted yesterday: “With NK choice is war or negotiation.”
Trump critics seem to think he has maneuvered himself into a corner — that he must choose to either negotiate with North Korea in the hopes of achieving, at best, a testing freeze, or that he must launch a war that would entail massive casualties and almost certainly go nuclear.
But this is a false choice. There is another way, one that the Trump administration should consider if it seeks progress on one of the most vexing problems of our time and wants to prove its critics wrong in the process.
Kim won’t give up his weapons
The administration made an early error in concluding that Kim Jong Un could be coaxed or coerced into giving up his nuclear weapons. He cannot.
My AEI colleague Nicholas Eberstad explains why: “In Pyongyang’s thinking, the indispensable instrument for achieving the DPRK’s grand historical ambitions must be a supremely powerful military: more specifically, one possessed of a nuclear arsenal that can imperil and break the foreign enemies who protect and prop up the vile puppet state in the south, so that the DPRK can consummate its unconditional unification and give birth to its envisioned earthly Korean-race utopia.”
Put simply, Kim can’t give up his nukes without threatening the very legitimacy — such as it is — of his rule. The only way to divorce North Korea of its nuclear weapons is to divorce it of it of its ruler.
Both a surgical decapitation strike and an invasion and occupation of the North would be fraught with intolerable risks and should be considered only last resorts in the event of a mounting crisis. Even so, the United States and its allies can take steps to create the conditions for regime change from within over time, while seeking to limit and deter the nuclear threat in the nearer term.
Sanctions will remain an important tool and, barring an unlikely change of heart in Beijing, should be aimed not only at the North but at Chinese persons and entities that abet Pyonyang’s evasion of sanctions. To the greatest extent possible, North Korea should be cut off from the international financial system, much as it was in the wake of the Banco Delta Asia revelations in 2005.
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Effective sanctions not only starve North Korea of the resources it needs to finance its weapons program, but also deny Kim the dollars he needs to ensure the loyalty of the Pyongyang elite.
An information campaign
It should also be a primary allied goal to sow disaffection among those men and women in best position to unseat the North Korean dictator. Information operations should seek to convince all officials — except those most intimately involved in the regime’s heinous human rights violations — that for them, there can be a life after Kim.
This should not be limited to the highest rungs of North Korean society. Many North Koreans are already avid consumers of South Korean media smuggled across the Chinese border. The United States should provide greater financial support such that NGOs and dissident networks can expand these operations.
Efforts to do so expanded during the final year of the Obama administration, but according to Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, the State Department budgeted less than $3 million for the program. That’s a pittance, considering that such a program’s aim is nothing less than consigning the world’s most brutal dictatorship to the dustbin of history.
The North Korean people, and especially North Korean soldiers, should know that while they tighten their belts, Kim and his comrades enjoy lives of luxury. North Korean citizens should know that in a free society they could determine their own fates.
Invest more in ballistic missile defense
The United States and its Asian allies must invest more deeply in ballistic missile defenses as well. Against a limited North Korean missile arsenal, U.S. continental missile defense can and should be made nearly airtight. Of course, American and South Korean forces on the peninsula must remain ready to “fight tonight” and able to deter a range of provocations short of the nuclear threshold.
Taken together, these steps will serve to slow the advance of North Korea’s weapons programs, turn its extant weapons into wasting assets, and create the conditions for change from within over the longer term. Admittedly, just how that change comes about is difficult to discern and will entail new and unpredictable dangers, not least because nuclear weapons and material will need securing and because China will perceive a Kim regime collapse as directly affecting Beijing’s own interests.
But no course of action is risk-free. For too long, the regime has sown terror among its own people and wreaked havoc on the international stage. Bringing about its downfall and, potentially, peaceful unification with Seoul, is the best way to eliminate the North Korean threat once and for all while bringing freedom and prosperity to its long-suffering people.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.