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What to Do About North Korea

What to Do About North Korea

The dangerous situation on the Korean peninsula has in the past several months reached another inflection point. The last surviving Stalinist outpost has recently launched a number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the United States has, in the words of U.S. president Donald Trump, threatened to respond with “fire and fury.” 

Analysts of geopolitics correctly conclude that there are no good solutions with respect to North Korea. A preemptive military strike on the part of the United States, aimed at destroying the North Korean launching capability before it is used, would likely spark a lethal conflict on the peninsula with hundreds of thousands of deaths as a result. Pursuing diplomatic solutions, on the other hand, has proved a strategy which alone, too, produces inadequate results. The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” has only allowed North Korea to further develop its aggressive capabilities.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that there is nothing that can be done. Even more importantly, the current U.S. administration has to ask some tough questions and develop a new strategy it can meticulously execute over the long term. Such strategy has to assess U.S. national interests, perceive the interests of other regional powers, and realize the limits of decisions driven by gut feelings. Lastly, the new strategy has to clearly articulate the answer to an all-important question: what are the United States' goals in the region and what is Washington willing to do achieve those goals?

As has been widely recognized, China is a crucial component of the North Korean equation. Without Chinese support, Pyongyang could hardly sustain itself economically. On the other hand, it would be a shortcut to conclude that Beijing can steer the North Korean leadership in any direction. The Chinese are often frustrated by North Korea themselves. What assures China’s support for maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula are Beijing’s own security interests. China does not want a reunited Korea with American troops on its border. It is for the international community, led by the United States, to accommodate the Chinese with respect to this fear and make China realize that it would be better off if it attempted to tame the young Kim’s whims. It is likely that as the situation escalates, China's own calculus will change. For instance, the recent North Korean missile that flew over Japan could lead the Japanese to consider increasing their military preparedness, a result which Beijing cannot possibly desire. As on many other occasions in international politics, a solution might require the right combination of sticks and carrots.

Unfortunately, the current U.S. administration, headed by an impulsive president, has not exactly realized that. Unless backed by tangible proposals, inflammatory rhetoric simply cannot succeed. As a businessman, Donald Trump surely understands that in order to sell one’s good (solution), one has to understand the needs of his customers (partners) and accommodate them if possible. China’s preference is to avoid U.S. troops on its borders, North Korea’s fear is that the U.S. will ultimately pursue regime change. Realizing that these are the focal questions will help the U.S. president find possible answers and utilize the right bargaining chips. For instance, U.S. policy makers could give China assurances that the U.S. military would depart the Korean peninsula upon the disappearance of the North Korean threat.  

In addition, there is still some space with respect to the many sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea. These sanctions have not always been carefully observed and even countries that like to fashion themselves as U.S. friends often host North Korean guest workers, likely providing the Stalinist regime with revenue. It is time to tighten the existing sanctions and ensure that their violators realize that they now have to choose between North Korea and the international community. Few will stick with North Korea.

If the U.S. manages to secure further isolation of the North Korean regime, Kim Jong-un might at last respond. A crucial question that has occupied the minds of journalists and military analysts alike is the degree to which the North Korean leader can be described as a rationally calculating individual. According to some, Kim is hardly rational given that he continuously provokes the United States against which he stands virtually no chance. To assess Kim Jong-un’s rationality, we have to realize that the leader is concerned about multiple audiences. For instance, demonstrating to the North Korean leadership that he is a fearless leader may be one of Kim’s sources of motivation even though it may lead him to nuclear brinkmanship. Furthermore, it is crucial to consider Kim’s time horizon. As a leader in his thirties, he is likely interested in preserving the North Korean regime for many decades to come, an outcome upon which his own physical survival depends. An aging leader who understands that his time might soon pass would perhaps act differently. In Kim’s case, personal stakes are particularly high and nuclear brinkmanship may seem like a very rational thing to do.

Currently, the U.S. is in danger of crossing the many red lines which have already been drawn by Donald Trump. In one of his Twitter posts, the president made it clear that North Korea’s ICBM capability “won’t happen.” Further statements promising “fire and fury” or “things (..) they never thought possible” have only raised the stakes. Yet it remains unclear that the United States can follow through on these statements. It is highly unlikely that South Korea would agree to a preemptive strike because such a strike would, indeed, prove disastrous. A strike would also, in the eyes of many, make the U.S. the aggressor. Backing down after such heightened rhetoric, on the other hand, could undermine the credibility of U.S. power. The threat of power is most effective when it is used sparingly and seriously. Neither America’s allies nor its enemies should be unsure if the U.S. president means what he says.

Ultimately, the response that we observe on the part of the United States is, irrespective of the current inhabitant of the Oval Office, illustrative of a phenomenon that has for some time weakened the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy. It is the mismatch between America’s stated goals and its willingness to take the necessary actions to achieve those goals. For instance, the United States vehemently supported Ukraine’s bid to turn to the West. However, America has been unwilling to offer the kind of military backing that would be necessary to solidify Ukraine’s position within the West (whether that is a reasonable goal is an altogether different question). Similarly with North Korea, it is the official position of the United States that a nuclearized Korean peninsula is an unacceptable proposition. But the question remains: is the United States willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that outcome?


Vladimir Chlouba is a PhD student of political science at Ohio State University.


The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself. Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen with a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

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