The North Korean problem is a conundrum despite its obvious asymmetry. North Korea holds the Trump Card (before that the Obama Card and on and on). It is the tremendous amount of artillery parked close to the border with South Korea and threatening a blitzkrieg against the South and the promised annihilation of Seoul that frightens. That is why Secretary of Defense “Mad Dog” Mattis says war with North Korea would be “catastrophic.”
President Trump tried to use China to pressure North Korea, but that never happened despite promises made by President Xi Jinping. Now, both China and Russia are urging the United States to back off and not threaten the North Korean government.
This leaves the United States with some soft options that won’t stop either the North Korean missile programs or its nuclear weapons development. The soft options are more fruitless negotiations through intermediaries, action in the United Nations (but now very limited because China and Russia will block any strong measures) or enhanced sanctions. Sanctions mean very little when China is the dominant trading partner of North Korea, accounting for over 90% of North Korea’s trade. And China also is a conduit for passing sensitive technology from abroad — mainly Europe and Japan — that ends up in North Korean weapons. A case in point: the North Korean Army drone that crashed in South Korea (on a mission to photograph the Thaad ballistic missile defense system) contained Japanese cameras and other parts from the Czech Republic and South Korea.
President Trump is now suggesting the possibility of trade sanctions on countries that supply North Korea, aiming directly at China, but it is unlikely given the dependence of US technology companies on China for manufacturing that the President will be able to get his administration, let alone Congress to support any such countermeasure.
Which leaves North Korea, at least for the moment, in the driver’s seat. If Kim Jong-un’s point is to embarrass the United States — as his latest expletive-laden attack suggests, calling the Americans “bastards” — then he is achieving that point. If his objective is to create a nuclear weapons capability that will render North Korea safe from any incursion from the United States then he may be on the road to achieving that goal as well. And if his idea is to sell missiles and nuclear weapons to his friends, such as Iran where he has been doing nuclear and missile business for years then he will likewise succeed, thanks to the lifting of Western sanctions and Iran’s newly acquired billions in cash to buy them. It will even get worse as companies such as Total in France do oil deals with Iran, enriching the country even more. The Total deal is valued at $4.8 billion.
So what can be done under current circumstances?
The first step is to treat the North Korean government as a danger to world peace and explicitly sponsor a government in exile intended to replace the Kim regime. While it would be best to locate a government in exile in South Korea, given the current tendency in South Korea to avoid any confrontation with the North, it can just as effectively sit in Washington. Congress should appropriate significant funds to support the activities of a government in exile, including political support and military training of volunteers.
A government in exile recognized by the United States will openly threaten the North Korean regime. There are enough North Korean defectors to form such a government, and no doubt there will be plenty of volunteers.
No one knows how strong Kim’s regime is these days. The fact that he has purged many close to him, carried out political executions and murdered his own half-brother says he is sitting on a powder keg. The right step in offering a genuine alternative to Kim could soon change the calculus of those who may decide to bolt from the regime or even sabotage it.
We can call this an “induced regime change” approach for North Korea.
The second step is the “Pershing Alternative.” When Russia changed the balance of power in Europe by introducing the mobile SS-20 threatening Europe in the late 1970s, President Reagan responded by putting Pershing II nuclear missiles in Germany and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in Italy and the UK. This step was hard to accomplish due to political opposition, especially in Germany fomented by leftists and Communists; but it was successful and it forced the Russians into a negotiation that resulted in the mutual elimination of these types of weapons.
North Korea should face the same challenge. It is not enough to put in place unproven missile defenses that could easily be overwhelmed by hundreds of North Korean rockets. Counterforce is the only measure that will cause fear in Pyongyang. Indeed, a credible counter-missile deployment could force the Kim regime to abandon its drive for weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.
The only question is where to base these counterforce systems. The best place is South Korea. But even Japan, with its great aversion to nuclear weapons, may decide it wants some to protect itself.
Together these steps are a hard but credible way forward to counter North Korea’s dangerous and destabilizing behavior.