The chance of conflict in the Korean peninsula should be weighed against the direct threat being posed to the U.S. The risk of nuclear war in Seoul should not be exchanged for the risk of nuclear war in San Francisco. Washington should not deceive itself that risk and tragedy can be forever postponed. The U.S. should prepare for the unthinkable to prevent it from becoming the inevitable.
The agenda for normalizing U.S.-Pyongyang relations should be modeled after the incremental U.S.-Hanoi approach, yet also take advantage of the momentum created by the April 27 summit between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un. While the summit produced few detailed plans, both leaders agreed in principle to pursue a permanent peace treaty. This now presents a natural opportunity for the U.S. to support South Korea by setting aside previous ambitions for regime change and championing efforts to turn the 1953 armistice into a peace agreement. Progressive steps would then follow a similar multi-year process used with Vietnam. Pursuing this methodology offers a viable conduit for changing the dynamics on the peninsula and in the region, while Kim Jong Un is provided security as well as access to the resources needed to lead his desired modernization efforts.
Whilst the diplomatic de-escalation of tensions in early 2018 is a welcome affirmation of Churchill’s observation that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war,’ the apparent concessions that North Korea has offered are not particularly damaging to Pyongyang’s interests. The array of concessions that Kim Jong Un has offered do not meet the standard of costly signals. North Korea has, on multiple occasions, offered concessions to U.S. and South Korean interests, only to renege on them with embarrassing haste. It is thus necessary to go beyond a superficial reading of DPRK’s apparent concessions.
The continuum of applied U.S. strategies towards North Korea has failed and will never achieve the desired strategic objectives, as they are currently envisioned. This is because U.S. policymakers remain focused on denuclearization and non-proliferation vice regional stability as the strategic goal. In the 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) President Obama outlined his vision for leveraging “strategic patience” as a means to force the Kim regime to the negotiating table. In his view, this strategy focused on a “commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” However, because the U.S. continues to fundamentally miscalculate the underlying cultural influences guiding North Korean decision-makers and because China and Russia have failed to consistently enforce economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (UNSC), strategic patience as envisioned by President Obama failed to produce the desired results. Continuing to march towards the same end-state, albeit more aggressively than before, President Trump released his 2017 NSS that asserts the U.S. “will work with allies and partners to achieve complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and preserve the non-proliferation regime in Northeast Asia.” Unfortunately, pursuing a denuclearized North Korea and convincing North Korea to agree to non-proliferation are fruitless endeavors. To understand precisely why these strategies have failed and will continue to fail, it is important to understand the cultural ideologies that influence North Korean national objectives and domestic policy actions.
Since 4 July 2017, when North Korea tested a ballistic missile, the world’s focus has been on North East Asia and how to resolve this current crisis. The North Korean nuclear program’s sudden successes came as a shock. However, it was simply a matter of time until these technological advancements were achieved, as the technology required is no longer cutting edge and the North’s nuclear ambitions and missile development program are already several generations old. At this point, the U.S. and the North are locked in a war of words, while outside powers such as China and Russia urge calm and a return to civil relations. Some now see conflict on the Korean Peninsula as inevitable and believe only China can resolve this confrontation without bloodshed. This is wrong.
The long-term consequences of allowing the Kim Il Sung dynasty to continue are likely to be grave, however, possibly worse for the United States than the consequences of the failure of the first opportunity to eliminate it. Moreover, with Seoul certain to bear the brunt of any near-term hostilities with North Korea, the Republic of Korea’s consideration of assassination as a third option deserves particular weight. As in 1946, it will entail almost certain death for those selected to carry it out, and it may result in wider hostilities, but it may be the least costly option with the most positive outcome for both the United States and the Republic of Korea.
The Obama Administration’s approach to the problem of North Korea has been termed strategic patience, and is in fact the same approach employed by previous administrations. At the heart of strategic patience is a belief that the status quo, while less than ideal, is better than many possible consequences of taking action. The premise of this argument is incorrect. What we see in North Korea is not a status quo, similar today to what it was decades ago, but rather a situation worsening at an exponential pace.
Recent provocations concerning Iran and North Korea raise concerns about the U.S. fighting another war. The U.S. Navy’s history with challenging Iranian actions in the Strait of Hormuz and the perceived escalation of North Korean provocations via ballistic missile development conjure thoughts of a third world war. Yet history offers lessons on the U.S. responding to foreign aggression far away from America’s territorial borders.
Our main argument is that a smart, practical foreign policy on North Korea must include cooperation with China, a controlled Russia, strong assurances to South Korea, the equities of Japan, robust domestic support in the United States and no direct military confrontation to achieve the political objective of a denuclearized Korean peninsula.