The bad options
The common refrain one hears in discussions of North Korea policy among US policymakers is that “there are no good options.” I’m not going to be senselessly iconoclastic and claim that I have found a good option, but I will tell you the two least bad options. But first, here are the bad options:
A limited military strike would almost certainly result in retaliation against South Korea, incurring massive casualties. It is also possible that it would result in full-scale war, including the possibility of war between the US and China. The same of course applies to invasion. Besides, it is almost certain that a limited strike would not take out North Korea’s entire nuclear arsenal. The US intelligence community hasn’t had a solid lock on the locations of all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities since the nineties.
Sanctions have proven ineffective over the past couple of decades, though it is conceivable that they would be more effective if heretofore lax participants, most notably China, enforced them rigorously. But it is possible that sanctions would lead to humanitarian disaster in North Korea if the economy were severely damaged, as the state might allocate resources away from the populace to the military and elite. And there is also the question of whether sanctions ever really work. A study of sanctions from 1915 to 2006 showed they work about 30 percent of the time, but the key is that whether they work depends on other factors in the country, and given the tightness of the North Korean state’s control, this is questionable.
Alternatively, China could be coerced into cooperation on the DPRK (whatever cooperation entails) by means of US sanctions against Chinese officials who are involved in commerce with North Korea. This would damage the US-China relationship, and the likelihood of successfully coercing China into a cooperation with the US would probably be limited, because the Chinese state is huge and uncoordinated. Central directives in China are much less effective than outsiders think.
There is also the option of asking China more or less politely for its help, with which President Trump and President Obama before him found no success.
Then there is Obama’s “strategic patience” doctrine. What was strategic patience? The strategy of waiting. Waiting for what? God only knows. For North Korea to collapse under its own weight or for China to decide to help, I suppose. The result was eight years in which the US government did next to nothing to address the fact that North Korea was rapidly approaching ICBM capability.
We might also mention the absurd notion of simply assassinating Kim Jong-un, which, besides being illegal, would doubtless entail a great chance of failure and massive military retaliation (again, mostly against South Korea).
Some have suggested that a concerted effort at information warfare would prove the most effective policy at present. North Koreans are hungry for information about the outside world, and they are savvier than you might think. In recent years, South Korean, Chinese, and other electronic media have flooded into North Korea on USB drives, often carried into the country by North Korean migrant workers returning from China. The US and South Korea could cooperate to increase the amount of information entering North Korea from various avenues. Needless to say, this should not consist of crude propaganda, least of all denunciations of the North Korean state or the Kim dynasty. Defector Hyeonseo Lee argues that K-drama and K-pop are far more powerful tools for opening the eyes of ordinary North Koreans, because they can see for themselves, through a non-confrontational medium, the prosperity and openness of South Korea. As North Korean knowledge of the outside world grows over time, the possibility of North Korean civil society and internal political change should grow apace. That was, after all, part of the downfall of the Eastern Bloc.
I remain skeptical about the possibility of this sort of change in North Korea. It is difficult to predict what sorts of political changes could come about as the result of internal dynamics. Advocates of information warfare believe that in theory, we might expect North Koreans who have seen images of the wealth and personal freedom available in the South to demand the same in their own country. As the theory goes, the North Korean elite would perceive this desire for change, and bet on the people rather than the Kim family. To continue this line of speculation, perhaps they would push for the opening of markets, which would lead to the opening of minds, greater contacts with the South, and in the end, they might be willing to attempt to push a reunification scenario in which their own personal wealth and security is guaranteed, but the reunified Korea adopts the political and economic systems of the South.
But our understanding of North Korea’s elite politics is not solid enough to make firm predictions. Jang Song-thaek advocated for economic reforms modelled on China’s, and he was executed for his trouble, though Kim Jong-un’s precise motivation for the execution is not entirely clear. On the other hand, we do know that the North Korean state has allowed gradual development of markets in recent years, and Western visitors to North Korea have reported an improvement in materials conditions within the country during this time, so perhaps the winds are indeed blowing toward economic opening.
To some extent, this scenario of free markets followed by free minds followed by free politics is obsolete. This idea comes from the way the Cold War ended in Europe, but I think the Chinese case has proven that a Communist state is entirely capable of opening its markets without opening its politics (In fact, China shows that a one-party state can persist even when its people have a relatively high degree of economic freedom and access to the outside world and don't particularly like the state). And North Korean elites are aware of the Chinese playbook. Even if they wanted to open up their economy on the basis of the Chinese model, why should they want to accept a South Korean takeover and political revolution? They would need to be in a position where they perceived a South Korean takeover as inevitable anyway, due to combined internal and external pressures.
Korean nationalism is very much alive in North Korea, arguably much more so than socialism. North Korean propaganda typically depicts the South Korean government as a prostitute regime, selling the Korean people out the Yankees, while South Korean people are shown as victims. After all, according to North Korean propaganda, the Korean race is inherently childlike and innocent (hence the need for the Kim family’s firm protection). North Koreans would most likely welcome the opportunity to reunite with their national cousins, particularly if they have come to perceive those cousins as more prosperous and willing to help.
The option nobody in Washington mentions
But this strategy sounds suspiciously close to one reliant on dialog, which is apparently heresy in Washington, because I have heard very few people suggest negotiation. The notion is dismissed out of hand by many in the national security establishment, a good example being Chris Hill opining that North Korea “sneers at international standards of behavior” and that North Korea does not seek regime security but rather seeks to hold its neighbors hostage.
No doubt the Kim dynasty sneers at us, but hey, how seriously do we take them? Now that they’ve launched an ICBM capable of hitting Chicago, it seems like Washington is maybe kinda starting to take them seriously, and yet whatever next stage they reach, we always have our corps of analysts who say, “Well, they can't attach a warhead to their missiles,” “Well, their fueling procedure is highly unusual,” “Well, they still can’t do a re-entry vehicle,” or “Well, it can't reach New York.” As Jeffrey Stein and Aaron Lewis of the Arms Control Wonk Podcast point out in their latest episode, people are always dismissing North Korea’s ability to take the next step. Essentially, people are in denial. Why is it that people are too terrified to admit the possibility that North Korea is capable of nuking the US? We lived through the Cold War, during which we learned to accept the weight of thousands of Soviet nukes hanging over our heads, and yet we seem psychologically unprepared to accept a single Korean nuke. Why is that?
It’s been more than a decade, so you kids today may not remember, but negotiations came quite close to success under Clinton. Under the Agreed Framework of 1994, the DPRK agreed to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections at its nuclear sites, the replacement of their existing nuclear reactors with light water reactors provided by the US (light water reactors being harder to make bombs with), and continued participation in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US agreed to gradually lift sanctions and normalize relations with North Korea. Did we?
No. Congressional Republicans, regarding the plan as appeasement, blocked the lifting of sanctions, and relations were not normalized. North Korea, meanwhile, kept producing highly-enriched uranium, which they warned us in 1998 that they would do if we didn’t hurry up with the installation of the light water reactors, and indeed, we were years behind schedule. So sure, they were intransigent in that they continued enriching uranium, but so were we, in that we didn’t lift sanctions, didn’t normalize relations, and didn’t supply the light water reactor in accordance with our own timeline. In 2002, the US suspended work on the reactor soon after beginning construction, and the DPRK withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, leaving the Agreed Framework a failure.
The fact that a negotiated settlement failed when we didn’t adhere to the terms of the settlement does not mean that North Koreans are inherently unable to adhere to agreements and therefore unworthy of negotiating with. Both sides were at fault. Heck, they could be forgiven for saying that it means Americans are inherently unable to adhere to agreements and therefore unworthy of negotiating with! We should perhaps try negotiating and then holding up our end of the bargain. Even if that doesn’t work, well, you try things, and sometimes you fail. It’s better than not trying.
So how could we set about negotiating? China indeed has leverage over North Korea, as I discussed in my last post. Due to the myriad security, economic, and other connections that we have with China, the US has ample opportunity to exert leverage over them. We could try all sorts of sticks, from denying visas to the 300,000 Chinese students in the US to banning food exports to China. The options are essentially limitless. As for carrots, in terms of assuaging the fears China has regarding the American presence on the Korean Peninsula, we should offer long-term withdrawal of US military from the South Korea, perhaps on a step-by-step basis premised on verifiable stages of denuclearization in the DPRK. If indeed we are not determined to contain China, as Washington consistently asserts, then we have no reason not to do this.
But what could the US offer North Korea? To begin with, we could halt joint military exercises with South Korea (as Russia and China have proposed), since, after all, the DPRK uses our exercises as the pretext for many of its weapons tests and specifically complains about the threat which they pose to its security.
Another step to take would be to agree to bilateral talks without preconditions, which is precisely what the DPRK has been asking for for years. The major reason why we haven’t done this already is obstinacy and our conviction of our own moral superiority.
I would like to reiterate: North Korea has been telling us, consistently, for years, precisely what they want: 1. Bilateral negotiations with the US, aimed at 2. A peace treaty formally ending the Korean War (which I’m sure I needn’t remind you, gentle reader, is currently in a state of armistice) followed by 3. Full normalization of US-DPRK relations and 4. Integration of the DPRK into the international community as a normal state. Unreasonable?
Of course there are reasons not to take this path, and of course it is no guarantee of anything. The one objection to the whole idea of negotiating and making concessions to North Korea which I certainly consider to be legitimate is that it encourages other states to seek security through nuclear proliferation. But I would argue that although this point is valid, it’s too late to worry about it now. We should act more decisively when intelligence indicates that other states are pursuing this path in the future. Indeed, the key lesson of North Korea should be that inaction doesn’t stop arms proliferation. But we must choose among the options we have in our present reality. North Korea may not budge, but trying something is better than whining about China on Twitter.