The rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea appears to signal we are on the march to a regional conflict. North Korea says it is ready to “teach the U.S. a severe lesson” and that America’s “unwise conduct” will lead to its own “distinction.” Meanwhile, U.S. President Trump tweets that North Korea’s threats will be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Where We Have Been
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un seeks to survive as the political leader of his country. And because his power was inherited through family – his grandfather, Kim il Song, being the founder of North Korea – the younger Kim must exert power over senior military and civilian government officials. There is no stronger card to do that than to develop a nuclear weapons program. It gives the military “nuclear power status,” while giving Kim Jong Un control over the government’s most important program. It also confers an international influence upon Kim, making it more costly to take him out.
For the United States, the key to Asia after World War II has been peace and stability. This has evolved from containing China to giving the communist country a path into the global trading community – all the while assuring Taiwan a way to develop in an increasingly independent way. From the “One China Policy” under former President Nixon and largely followed since, it has allowed all of this premised on U.S. security guarantees and continued involvement in Asia.
Where We Should Go from Here
If we cut through the recent bluster of statements and tweets by North Korea and the United States, we find Kim Jong Un and North Korea want two things: 1) To stay in power; and 2) To legitimize his country’s borders with a formal end to the Korean War. For its part, the U.S. wants an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. At this stage in North Korea’s weapons program, the Trump Administration should focus on containing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. This allows North Korea to keep a limited program, but subjects it to highly intrusive and strict inspections. It also puts the focus on limiting the program, as well as curtailing (and punishing) Kim Jong-un for any bad behavior in which he engages.
Further, the Trump Administration should declare it will not seek regime change, as well as recognize North Korea’s existing borders. Finally, depending on Pyongyang’s behavior, the U.S. will negotiate a formal peace agreement. To be sure, the border recognition and peace agreement concessions are contingent upon North Korea understanding the following: This is not a formal end to the Korean War; any negotiations related to recognizing borders and negotiating a peace agreement are led by the demands of South Korea; and these concessions are also based on North Korea agreeing to open humanitarian and economic ties (including trade and investment flows) with South Korea.
The goal of opening ties between North and South Korea is largely to support the efforts of newly elected South Korea President Moon Jae-in. Moon has reached out to Kim Jong-un, seeking to improve relations with North Korea, but has also said he would be willing to beef up South Korea’s military if necessary.
If North Korea fails to meet these tests, then the U.S. will expand its deployment and operation of the THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) system, and will step up its naval activities that include joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan. More provocative behavior by North Korea will bring more military responses by the U.S. At the end of the day, the U.S. has overwhelming military power. Additionally, the Pentagon developed a strategy to be able to fight two regional conflicts simultaneously for a period of time. Finally, while Japan does not want to go nuclear, its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has pushed to expand Japan’s foreign and defense posture regionally and around the world.
As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out in calling for U.S. acceptance of a limited and verifiable North Korean nuclear capability, U.S. military responses to bad behavior by Kim Jong-un will cost China “billions” they will have to spend. And the U.S. has leverage over China due to their extensive trade and investment relationship. China does not want a provocative North Korea, and China has extensive influence over North Korea (North Korea conducts about 90% of its global trade with Beijing.).
How to Get There
The U.S. should employ a “coercive diplomatic” approach that relies on diplomatic and economic strategies, while backing it up with American military pressure to ensure the U.S. gets what it wants. Coercive diplomacy is often employed in fast-moving diplomatic situations where the parties engage in a “response-counter response” ratcheting up of the situation. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the classic example. That crisis was brought to a successful ending – the removal of Soviet missiles on the island of Cuba – partly because President Kennedy used American naval actions back up his demands and negotiations with the Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev.
The format for this strategy is a multi-lateral framework similar to that operated by the George W. Bush Administration. Those players are the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and North Korea. This leverages the influence and interests of key regional players, gaining from their influence and making them accountable. For example, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. all want North Korea’s missile activity stopped and its nuclear program contained. And, South Korea, China, and Russia want a more stable North Korea. Finally, all parties want a stable region.
Tweets Don’t Answer the Problem
President Trump and supporters who advocate an early military strike need to account for the costs of the next steps that will come. For instance, trying to bomb successfully the hard to reach nuclear targets that reside deep within North Korea will be difficult. But whatever the challenges, the act will embolden Kim Jong-un’s people to their leader. It will simultaneously undermine South Korea and alienate China. China will then be in the position of having to support North Korea much more than it wants. Moreover, Russia may see an opportunity to exploit the situation with military hardware sales to North Korea. Finally, any kind of attack on the country will bring massive waves of people fleeing into both South Korea (straight into American military troops) as well as into China.
The U.S. has more than 50,000 troops in the immediate area (24,000 in South Korea alone) along with hundreds of thousands of American civilian government, private sector, students, and various missionary and private charity workers that also live in the immediate area. When one considers that South Korea’s capital, Seoul, houses more than 25 million people and is less than 40 miles from the North Korean border, one can easily see how any kind of direct attack would result in a humanitarian and security nightmare for South Korea and the region. Tweeting vague military threats that confuse America’s enemies and allies in the region – not to mention U.S. policymakers and the American people – is both irresponsible and could undermine U.S. and allied security and economic interests in the future.
What is necessary is for the U.S. to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, subjecting it to strict, intrusive, and verifiable international inspections, and making it too costly for Kim Jong-un to continue to engage in provocative behavior. However, this must be done through a multilateral process that is backed by American military power to ensure the United States gets North Korea to abide by U.S. conditions. If North Korea does, the Stalinist regime and a limited nuclear weapons capability can survive and Kim Jong-un can achieve the domestic legitimacy he needs to survive. If not, he (and his government) will find the cost of misbehavior to be too high.
Photo: Stephan/Creative Commons