North Korea’s nuclear tests and dozens of missile launches in recent years have understandably rattled nerves. Its August 29 firing of a ballistic missile over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and its test on Sunday of a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb are the latest examples of the rogue regime’s march toward developing a fully fledged nuclear-weapons program.
Many observers assert that there are no viable military options to resolve this crisis given the North Korean military’s capabilities to inflict widespread damage and hundreds of thousands of casualties on the South if hostilities were to break out. It is also argued that this seemingly intractable problem is unlikely to be resolved through negotiations given the distrust engendered from the North’s reneging on past agreements with the US.
Others claim that sanctions against the North Koreans have proved to be an ineffective tool toward changing their behavior, noting Pyongyang’s recent announcement that it already has the resources it needs to develop further and complete its nuclear-weapons program, suggesting that the program is self-sufficient and not reliant on outside sources.
Each of these spheres – military, negotiations and sanctions – has its limitations in crafting a solution to the problem of North Korean aggression. Yet, when applied over the longer term, a combination of these efforts will be necessary toward protecting South Korea, Japan and the United States.
The role of deterrence
While North Korea poses its own unique set of problems, we have seen versions of this movie before vis-a-vis the West’s 1945-89 struggle with the Soviet Union. We can protect ourselves against North Korean belligerence by adopting some of the first principles applied by the 20th century’s Cold Warriors – Ronald Reagan, in particular – utilizing a long-term approach of containment, sanctions and deterrence with overwhelming capabilities.
Adopting these measures will be necessary steps toward upgrading defenses, demonstrating US resolve and averting miscalculation by Pyongyang. This approach will demand a sustained commitment of resources and geopolitical capital, and will require the US to continue to emphasize early and often its policy of defending South Korean, Japanese and its own interests.
Initial first steps ought to be increased rotations of carrier battle groups and Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines in Northeast Asian waters, expanded deployments of the US Army’s THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) and US Navy’s Aegis missile defense systems in the region, and the reinstallation of tactical nuclear weapons at US-operated Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
The purpose of upgrading US defense assets in the region would be to communicate to Pyongyang that it is unable to match American conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities and that it would lose any conflict with Washington. The continued deployment of superior assets in the region would also provide additional clout in future discussions with North Korea.
Without such an overarching framework and strategy that is structured to be applied over the course of multiple administrations, the risk of an emboldened, nuclear North reigniting hostilities on the Korean Peninsula only rises.
Learning from history
This raises the question, what does North Korea want?
Some argue that Pyongyang wants to talk to the US as an equal partner. Yet the US has talked with North Korea before during both the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations.
Simply put, North Korea wants to vanquish South Korea and push the United States off the Korean Peninsula and out of Asia, and it is willing to expend the time and effort toward achieving these goals.
To this end, US and allied leaders must continue to revisit and learn from history.
Many in the US did not think Ho Chi Minh was serious in his stated goal of conquering South Vietnam and uniting the North and South. We know how that turned out.
North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, was willing to sacrifice a generation of the North’s young men in an attempt to unite the peninsula under his rule during the Korean War. Since this failed undertaking, the North has viewed the Korean War as unfinished business.
It is through this prism that North Korea views its struggle and commits to developing the capabilities necessary to achieve its desired outcomes.
Steps needed: playing the long game
For the past 65 years, the US policy of deterrence toward North Korea, while failing to prevent Pyongyang from developing into a nuclear power, has prevented a new full war on the peninsula as well as an attack upon Japan and US territories.
In this same time frame, South Korea has gone from an impoverished economy to one of the world’s largest (No 12), and the South’s economy is now more than 35 times as large as that of the North.
Despite the successes of deterrence on the peninsula, the US and South Korea are in for a long struggle. Washington and its allies will need to make life as difficult as possible for Pyongyang without instigating a conflict. The end goal is that in years to come either the regime will come to an end or a different type of leader will emerge in Pyongyang.
An argument can be made of the need for North Korea to have a way out and reverse its chosen path. The US and its allies must leave a door open for this and be prepared for discussions with the regime. This will require Washington, Seoul and Tokyo to commit to strategic thinking on all related considerations, develop clear objectives and communicate their red lines to Pyongyang.
Among these considerations will be the difficult talks among Washington, Seoul and Beijing on what a reunified Korean Peninsula would look like.
Key topics will include agreeing on the specific areas in the North where US, South Korean and Chinese forces will be permitted after a possible collapse of the regime; plans for restoring order; devising plans for securing the North’s nuclear weapons in addition to its extensive chemical and biological weapons stockpiles; placing North Korea’s political prisoners in the care of the South; and making arrangements to provide food, shelter and medical care for the millions of refugees from the North.
Given the enormous task of providing for the refugees, it would be unrealistic to place the entire responsibility on both Seoul and Beijing, and this commitment will need to be shared by regional partners, the US and the international community.
Going forward, the US objective of deterrence needs to continue to be the avoidance of a second Korean War. While deterrence has been an imperfect approach, it is still the most viable one given the resourceful and cunning nature of the North Korean regime.
Last, part of playing the long game is to recognize that US, South Korean and Japanese intelligence on North Korea leaves a lot to be desired. Our ability to track the rate of the North’s progress on its weapons systems’ development, our knowledge of the workings of the Kim family dynasty and its inner circle, and our ability to forecast the direction and trajectory of the regime often fall short.
North Korea has gone further and made quicker progress on its nuclear program than many estimated and has proved to be a durable regime capable of surviving amid great stresses and challenges: international sanctions, famine, military pressure and isolation from the outside world. It is vital that the US avoid being dismissive of Kim Jong-un’s government and to acknowledge that we know less about the regime than we think we do.
In this light, the need for a long-term, well-thought-out strategy of continued sanctions, containment and deterrence is in order, similar to the approach used toward Russia and China today and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.