Recent American experience with regime change has been starkly unsuccessful.
The Bush administration’s mismanagement, compounded by President Obama’s decision to abandon the country, left Iraq vulnerable to ISIS and Iran.
The Obama administration’s foolish sponsorship of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt ousted longtime ally Hosni Mubarak, leading to upheaval and a military-led government.
The overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi led to a vacuum of governance and the emergence of militias – some of which are closely connected to al Qaeda – and the emergence of an ISIS base that was removed only with great difficulty.
In each case, the US eliminated an “unacceptable” ruler without a viable candidate or organization to take the reins. In each case, the result was chaos. Chaos in nuclear-capable North Korea would be a catastrophe.
The United States does not lack the means to oust North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, and indeed can remove many of Kim’s key backers and most of Pyongyang.
There are “kill teams,” such as Seal Team 6, which reportedly is training for just this mission. There are drones that can penetrate North Korea’s airspace and, when Kim makes a public appearance, blast him with a Hellfire missile, as the US has done to terrorists from al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban.
There is the F-22, a stealth platform that could destroy the Presidential palace and other government buildings.
The US has planes that can jam radio and telephone communications, and tools to take over TV and radio broadcasting, which, if used effectively, would create confusion and seemingly tell the remaining Korean leaders they have no choice but to cooperate or be eliminated.
The question is whether the decapitation of the North Korean regime would accomplish the desired American end – a manageable, meaning de-nuclearized, North Korea.
Regime change has not been the US policy in North Korea and President Trump has said it is not his policy either. However, the permissive approach pursued over the last 20 years is a demonstrated failure.
Negotiating “deals,” first with Kim Il-sung, then Kim Jong-Il and then with Kim Jong-Un, resulted in repression at home and illicit trade with Asia and Europe that allowed North Korea to increase its nuclear, chemical weapons, and missile programs by importing parts and technology.
It also allowed North Korea and Iran to cooperate on missiles and nuclear weapons, later adding Syria where the three were involved in building a replica of the Yongbyon reactor at al-Kibar, subsequently destroyed by the Israeli Air force.
With even more afoot as the North Korean regime prepares for its sixth test of a potentially miniaturized nuclear weapon suitable for missiles, perhaps it is time to reconsider the no regime change policy.
North Korea is a highly stratified place: there is a military-oriented elite that runs the country, and then there is everyone else who, except for the families of the favored in Pyongyang, are suppressed and impoverished.
There is very little exposure of either of these broadly defined groups to the outside world. Everything revolves around Kim and his family.
And, just as they know little about the outside world, the outside world knows little about the regime and any possible patterns or plans for succession – even clandestine ones – or people in the ruling clique who might be more amenable to outside influence.
If the US jumped in now with a military operation, it could well decapitate the regime, but we could very well end up with people just as nasty, just as aggressive, just as impervious to outside reason as Kim.
Exchanging the lunatic we now have for another one, even angrier and justifiably more paranoid, would leave the US, South Korea, Japan – even China – facing a real risk of nuclear conflict.
The regime in North Korea may be paranoid in some respects, but it does know it has enemies, and it does have a ruthless and effective counterintelligence apparatus.
Various Chinese attempts to remove Kim have resulted in a series of executions – including at least one execution of military officers reportedly using anti-aircraft guns.
As we know now, Kim Jong Un successfully assassinated his half brother in Malaysia last February 13 with the nerve agent VX, further testimony – if it were needed – to the regime’s ruthlessness.
In a new book, Stop North Korea!: A Radical New Approach to the North Korea Standoff, Shepherd Iverson of Inha University in Seoul proposes bribing North Korean civilian and military leaders to abandon Kim through a “Reunification Investment Fund” of $175 billion.
The plan directly addresses China’s concern that the collapse of the North would result in millions of refugees flooding China – a concern South Korea shares.
And South Korea’s new government has taken a strong position on reconciliation and/or reunification with the North rather than belligerence, openly regretting the installation of US THAAD missiles.
But even if the North and South discuss investment/reunification – which South Korea tries to organize into bribes along the lines of Iverson’s book – it is unlikely that bribe-takers in the North will survive long. But there is one other group of potential interlocutors.
A great many North Koreans have defected to the South, some of whom might be organized into a government in exile.
This would put pressure on the North, which hasn’t previously faced the possibility of organized opposition outside the country.
And a government in exile with decent funding and the possibility of using the reunification fund to mitigate the cost of necessary investments in food and industry could encourage military and political officials in Pyongyang.
It meets some of the interests of the new Korean government, and would make clear to China that the US seeks regime change that will not leave behind either chaos or a nuclear North Korea.
For 20 or more years the US has pandered to the North Korean regime and created an unholy mess with missile and nuclear proliferation threatening peace and stability not only in the Asia Pacific region but also far beyond.
Reversing that is all-important, but reversing it without planning for “the day after” would only exacerbate the problem. We have to do better.
Stephen Bryen and Shoshana Bryen co-authored this article. Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center and has more than 30 years experience as a defense policy analyst.