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The North Korea non-starter

Today’s North Korea is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The latter was inspected by the UN on multiple occasions with the full knowledge of the regime that no doomsday weapons would be uncovered. The former, on the other hand, detonated a nuclear weapon seven times the size of Fat Man and Little Boy last month and has the nuclear capabilities to, according to estimates made by Scott D. Sagan, initiate a war which could kill a million people in its first day.

It may seem backward to some that speculation and bluster surrounding a supposed WMD program could lead to the invasion and destruction of Iraq while a seemingly volatile and aggressive nuclear state on the Korean peninsula is still only worthy of jeers and angry tweets. But Iraq should be a grim lesson, not a benchmark. If Sagan is right, the death toll of the Korean War 2.0 would dwarf the Iraq War’s. Perhaps threats and provocative war exercises are not the right way to deal with a Communist state which, as the general public believes, is itching to push the big red button.

Unfortunately, talk of “fire and fury” and “total destruction” seem to imply that the US favors this “strategy”.

There are three potential courses of action. The first is war, whether this be a full-scale invasion, a “decapitation” operation (the killing of senior party officials), or targeted strikes on North Korean missile facilities. Regardless of which of these messy and stupid actions would be taken, the same consequence would have to be dealt with: missile launches at Japan, South Korea, and/or Guam and the killing of over a million people.

The second option is bringing the North Koreans back to the negotiating table, something which should be quite easy to do. Over the past twenty years, the US and Pyongyang have negotiated or attempted to seriously negotiate an end to the North Korean nuclear program.

During the Clinton years, the 1994 Agreed Framework came tantalizingly close to completion. Had the negotiations gone as planned, North Korea would have denuclearized and re-joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In Kim Jong-Il’s own words, “The United States would have had a new friend in Northeast Asia in a complex world.” During the Bush and Obama years, North Korea proposed shutting down or freezing its nuclear program in return for a handful of largely symbolic measures (being taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, signing an end to the Korean War, ending war games near the DMZ, etc.) Unfortunately, all of these agreements failed because the United States refused to abide by the agreements, North Korea got skittish, or a combination of both.

Such proposals have again been raised during the Trump administration only to be quickly swatted away by those who view the Kim regime as irrational and trigger happy; Nikki Haley dubbed the proposal of a North Korean freeze on nuclear tests in exchange for a cessation of war games as “insulting”, despite the fact that this may be a mutually beneficial step in the right direction.

Haley later went on to claim that the US is “out of options” on North Korea, implying that denuclearization is a lost cause; in other words, it’s war or nothing. This view had become institutionalized long before the Trump administration came to power. Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in 2014: “The North Koreans are not going to give up their nuclear weapons. It’s a non-starter.”

As years of US-North Korean negotiations demonstrate, this is untrue. The Agreed Framework stated that North Korea would work with the South to achieve “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” and “take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, an agreement which requires both North and South Korea “not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.”

The Six-Party Talks proposal which was scuttled by the Bush administration but (like the Agreed Framework) was accepted by North Korea, re-established the goal of negotiations as “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner”. The DPRK went as far as to completely shut down its main nuclear facility, Yongbyon, in 2007 and 2008, and invite the IAEA back into the country to inspect and witness the destruction of its cooling tower. Under the Obama administration, the Kim regime offered to “ship out all of its nuclear fuel rods, the key ingredient for producing weapons-grade plutonium, to a third country in exchange for a U.S. commitment to pledge that it has ‘no hostile intent’ toward the DPRK.” According to American negotiator Joel Wit, the Obama administration “didn’t even listen” to what was being proposed.

The opinion held by pundits and government officials that North Korea craves nuclear destruction represents a critical misunderstanding of history. While Pyongyang clings to the weapons program, more than one statement made by their government makes clear that their intention is to deter an attack by the United States. All previous agreements have included passages that require the US not strike North Korea or engage in “military provocations”.

A recent statement released by the North Korean army gives clear examples of what they view as “provocations”. The list includes a “large-scale airdrop and mobile drill” by the 82nd airborne division, a “plan for bringing strategic assets including B-52, B-1B, B-2A and F-22 formations to south Korea”, and plans by the United States to “bring huge naval forces including its two nuclear aircraft carrier task forces and a nuclear sub to the waters off the Korean peninsula.” Complaints of “provocations” by the American military are not unwarranted.

Ending such drills in exchange for a cessation of the DPRKs nuclear weapons program is a deal highly favorable to the US considering that nuclear weapons are viewed as the one factor deterring an invasion of the North, while war games benefit the US comparatively little (Haley would apparently risk war and massive human destruction than see the US “insulted” by accepting a beneficial peace treaty.). With deals this one-sided, one would think the DPRK was itching to rid itself of nuclear weapons as soon as possible.

Quelling fears of an American invasion of Korea is the first step in negotiations; shortly after comes the elimination of nuclear weapons. For some reason, the order of these steps has been critically misunderstood. No, the US is not “out of options”, and Kim’s elimination of nuclear weapons is not “a non-starter”.

The third and final option for dealing with North Korea would be to take a Cold War-esque view of the conflict and continue a policy of deterrence. Forget about negotiations, focus on preventing a nuclear strike, and throw the idea of preventive invasion off the table. In The Atlantic, Mark Bowden writes:

Acceptance is likely because there are no good military options where North Korea is concerned. As frightening as it is to contemplate a Kim regime that can successfully strike the United States, accepting such a scenario means living with things only slightly worse than they are right now… Pyongyang has been constrained by the same logic that has stayed the use of nuclear arms for some 70 years. Their use would invite swift annihilation.

By pressuring Kim to not strike first, the United States can continue to play the waiting game. This option works in tandem with a fact about North Korea that often goes unnoticed due to its subtlety and immediate irrelevance: creeping liberalism.

The DPRK is an oddity when it comes to dictatorial one-party states. There is no clear liberal resistance movement vocally opposed to the terrible conditions in North Korea. In numerous Middle Eastern autocracies, there have existed violent underground militia movements waiting for the right moment to take out their leader and attempt to rebuild something nicer or more akin to the people’s interests atop the ashes. North Korea has no such movement.

However, more than one journalist has returned from North Korea reporting that capitalism and western indulgences have begun to subtly sneak into the hermit kingdom. Evan Osnos writes in The New Yorker:

Now and then, I saw people hunched over cell phones. Since 2013, Pyongyang has had 3G mobile service, but most people have access only to North Korea’s self-contained intranet, which allows them to send e-mail inside the country and to look at some Web sites. But many North Koreans have had some exposure to Chinese, American, and South Korean entertainment, smuggled over the border on SD cards that are small enough to be inserted into a phone.

Information technology has made it easier to disseminate information, even through the seemingly impenetrable wall of the Kim’s’ propaganda and brainwashing. Last year, it was reported that the Human Right’s Foundation’s “Flash Drives for Freedom” initiative smuggled in 20,000 USB drives filled with western entertainment and information.

John Feffer, of the Institute for Policy Studies, reports on the growth of technology and capitalism in the DPRK:

North Korea is changing. Private markets have become a permanent feature of the landscape, and a rising nouveau riche and an expanding middle class are transforming the DNA of the country. Out of a population of 25 million, as many as three million people now own cell phones and there are enough cars in Pyongyang these days to generate the occasional traffic jam. Those who have become wealthy from market activities are buying and installing solar panels to power upscale appliances like wall-mounted televisions. Capitalism, in other words, has begun to bubble up from below.

Dr. Mitsuhiro Mimura, an economic researcher who has visited North Korea 45 times, speaks on the emergence of entrepreneurship in the seemingly self-reliant socialist state:

Families need income independent of what they get from the government. The people understand it. The government understands it, too…For example, a wife has a talent for making clothes. Or cookies. Or cakes. She starts providing those services and products to people in her neighborhood. That household business starts at a very small scale, just selling to her neighbors individually. But through word of mouth she gets more customers. So her business grows…If one wife hires nine others, that’s illegal exploitation. But if ten wives work together, that’s socialist cooperation. And in the North Korea of today that socialist cooperation is held up as an example for others.

[A]t this moment—because the leaders can’t deliver—they have no choice but to close their eyes to what the people are actually doing.

North Korea’s nuclear regime can’t stand on its own forever. It underwent a serious famine in the late 1990’s. Food shortages are commonplace. “Illegal” economic practices are becoming typical. And on top of this, the dissemination of western information and wealth is seeping through the cracks in the regime. Something has to give.

With this in mind, playing the waiting game with Pyongyang may not be such a terrible plan. The DPRK can continue railing against the west, but as North Koreans become more aware of the world around them and their own terrible conditions, they may soon find that the Great Leader’s priorities are not in check with reality. The propaganda and crackdowns will intensify, and perhaps then we’ll see a resistance movement begin to blossom. In the end, an invasion of North Korea may not be necessary in taking down the regime.

We can combine these two non-war strategies into a comprehensive approach to tackling North Korea which doesn’t threaten the nuclear annihilation of anyone. Approach the Kim regime with a plan to de-nuclearize the peninsula in exchange for an end to all military provocations and the institution of a “no first strike” policy. If the negotiations fail, institute the policy anyway. With the official US position being that it will not strike North Korea first, the wind is removed from the sails of fear-based DPRK propaganda. America will downgrade North Korea from a nuclear boogeyman to a petulant child waiting to finally grow up. As time goes on, the North Koreans may come to the conclusion that the Supreme Leader has no clothes.

While it may be in our best interest to tolerate a nuclear North Korea for the time being, the current braggadocio cannot continue. Osnos writes:

I wanted to understand how North Koreans think about the kind of violence that their country so often threatens. Were the threats serious, or mere posturing? How did they imagine that a war would unfold? Before my arrival in North Korea, I spent time in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing; many people in those places, it turned out, are asking the same things about the United States.

Aside from nuclear war, the current state of affairs may be the worst possible way to deal with the Kim regime. Threats by the United States make Kim seem like the David to Trump’s Goliath in the eyes of North Koreans. Creeping liberalism loses its potency when the Dear Leader is still viewed as dear. There are ways out of this predicament that don’t involve fire and fury, and Washington would be wise to take a closer look at them.

Photo credit: Stephan/Creative Commons


Patrick Carr

Patrick Carr is a freelance writer and researcher who specializes in economics, current events, international relations, and environment issues. He has worked as a staff member on a number of independent publications, and his work has appeared on DailyKos and Counterpunch.