Everyday there are a number of issues for public consumption. The moment you choose one topic for your readers, another seems to take the lead in terms of importance. In just the last week, the White House Press Secretary resigned, the Attorney General came under fire from his own president, the newly installed Communications Director was caught in a profanity-laced tirade at the White House Chief of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff then resigned, and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security moved into the Chief of Staff position. A year’s worth of news crammed into one week.
The domestic carnival we are living through in the age of social media does not subtract from the serious issues, both domestically and internationally, that can pose a grave threat to our country. North Korea is one such issue. It is a problem … and the solutions are fraught with danger.
How we got here is a long and tortured path of appeasement and taking the easy way out. The first sign of a North Korean nuclear development program came in the early 1990s. Seeing the fate of Saddam Hussein, North Korea commenced a crash course on getting the bomb… aided and abetted by the Pakistani AQ Khan network. At a time when China did not have an aircraft carrier or a functioning Navy, at the height of our superpower moment, President Clinton instead traded food and oil in exchange for the North shutting down their nuclear program. Appeasement, strike one.
The Bush Presidency correctly identified North Korea – along with Iran and Iraq – as forming an axis of evil. The plan was to roll up the dictators all at once. Sadly, the poorly planned and managed occupation of Iraq dragged on for years… the U.S. was unable to deal with multiple theater threats given how bogged down in the Middle East we were after 9/11. Having lied, unsurprisingly to Clinton, the North had illegally and covertly continued their nuclear weapons development, culminating in their first-ever October 2006 nuclear detonation. Stuck in the Iraqi quagmire, the Bush Administration did nothing, and impotently continued the so-called “Six Party Talks.” They were eventually cancelled in 2009 with no movement towards a de-nuclearization of the North. The Obama Presidency simply chose to ignore the problem, which now has metastasized into a ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. Appeasement, strike two.
Will “Appeasement Strike Three” occur under the Trump Administration? What options are truly on the table?
What strategies do we have left in dealing with the Kim Jong Un regime?
- Try a new, robust sanctions regime. How does the old saying go … insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? North Korea has cheated and violated previous sanctions regimes, why should we expect a different result this time? In fact, history has no record of any government ever complying with a sanctions regime when they have willing partners who will choose to violate international agreements. China will not comply with UN or U.S. sanctions on North Korea, even if they say they will in public. China is everyone’s favorite country to blame for North Korea’s rise, but China does not want a unified Korea on its border, and specifically a unified Korea that is pro-West, and pro-American. North Korea is an insurance policy against such risks.
- Cut yet another deal … oil, food for giving up their nukes. We have been down this road twice before in 1994 and 2003. All we got for it was broken promises, broken agreements, and a nuclear armed North Korea. However, many analysts argue that this is the only path available to us – more multi-party talks resulting in a deal (or even direct negotiation between the U.S. and North Korea, which until now both political parties have opposed). But even the North Korean regime has signaled they will not engage in talks to eliminate their weapons program, a sign that they do not feel threatened by any U.S. action.
- Time for military action. Public opinion in the U.S. of regime change, bombing the nuke facilities, and/or all-out war, is not very high. Fatigue with the Iraq debacle and the resultant Middle Eastern chaos has made cooler-heads prevail. But what if the cooler heads say we have no choice? It would be messy, expensive, and bloody … estimates range between 250,000 and 1 million causalities just in the first months alone, as the South Korean capital of Seoul is right on the border with the North. It is within striking range of the largest artillery battery the world has ever seen. Samsung, the world’s largest technology retailer by revenue… Hyundai… Kia Motors… and more have their corporate HQ within striking distance of the North Korean military. It would not be just bloody and expensive, it would throw world markets into chaos. But at the end of the day, what is the greater risk: potential devastation on an Asian land mass, or a nuked U.S. city.
- Do nothing… contain the threat. People forget, and cable news shows do not report, that U.S. containment policies after World War II were based upon the United States possessing overwhelming military and global dominance. Nuclear weapons were restricted to a few great powers, who in turn were exhausted from World War II. The Russians did not begin to gain near comparable war-making capability until the 1960’s and by that time both sides had settled into an ideological struggle, not an actual shooting war (China never gained near-equality on the military front and still remain behind the US to date). Containment worked because the biggest, strongest power, the U.S., was sane and moral. Today U.S. adversaries such as China and Russia possess equal or greater capabilities than we do; China may be sane, but not necessarily moral. Russia appears to be neither. In this environment, North Korea (and Iran) have mastered 1940s technology (nuclear weapons) and neither appears sane or rational. North Korea, combined with these other major adversaries, in a world that no longer follows U.S. leadership, has not exhibited a willingness to be “contained.”
North Korea is a problem. And we are not even considering the connection between North Korean nukes and non-state actors such as terrorists, or China and Russia using the North Koreans and Iran as proxies to launch strikes against Americans. We may be at a turning point where the only option is a bad one, and that is to remove the nukes one way or the other.
It is impossible to understate the degree of forward-deployed, U.S. force structure that has been abandoned over the last 8 years. The giving up of leadership and control under the previous Administration has left the world a more dangerous place than ever before. The result has been a vacuum filled by bad actors, eager to upend American hegemony. The options for preventing further danger to American lives, and our way of life, are limited.