North Korea: No Easy Solution in Sight

BY UPAMANYU LAHIRI

North Korean special forces soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

North Korean special forces soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country’s founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

On April 15, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un organized a military parade in Pyongyang to commemorate the 105th anniversary of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founding president of North Korea. The parade was meant to be a massive display of strength for the country, but it ended in embarrassing failure as a ballistic missile launched during the parade blew up almost immediately. The international community, however, did not so much as laugh as sigh in relief as a successful missile test would have meant that the rogue communist regime had developed the ability to launch nuclear warhead-equipped ballistic missiles to targets farther away than its known capabilities. North Korea continuing to build missiles and nuclear weapons represents one of the thorniest issues for President Donald Trump.

Trump, in his interview with the Financial Times ahead of his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, said, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” Like many of the president’s utterances on sensitive political topics, Trump’s statement was overly simplistic. Trump seems to be suggesting that the Unites States can easily and unilaterally solve the North Korean nuclear problem. But this is far from the truth. North Korea and its nuclear program are complicated issues that are difficult for the United States to solve – much more so without the help of China, which is the reclusive regime’s only ally and accounts for around 85 percent of its trade. Just like halting the Iranian nuclear program required multilateral cooperation including all of the P5 members of the UN Security Council, dealing with North Korea will require the efforts of many countries. Of course, the case of North Korea is further complicated because it already has nuclear weapons and the United States has even less influence on it than it had on Iran. Iran, given its status as an oil economy, has a good amount of trade with the rest of the world, which is why the economic sanctions put on it had such a crippling impact and thus brought the country to the negotiating table. By contrast, North Korea has almost no trade with any other country in the world apart from China.

Trump’s statement also seems to indicate that China can “solve” the North Korean nuclear problem if it wishes to, which is a more reasonable supposition, although still simplistic. North Korea already has nuclear weapons and China can only help ensure that Kim Jong-un does not use them or make reckless saber-rattling comments like his threat to “wipe out Manhattan” and reduce the United States “to ashes.” While this is mostly empty bluster since North Korea is not currently capable of sending a nuclear warhead to any part of US territory, it has the capability to strike Japan and South Korea with a nuclear-fitted mid-range missile. When Trump asks China to “solve North Korea,” he seems to think China has more power over its impoverished neighbor than it really does. Short of halting all financial transactions with North Korea, which may catalyze an economic crisis in North Korea that might trigger a collapse of the regime, there is not much China can do to make Kim Jong-un give up his nukes. China is unlikely to do this anyway as the risk of regime change could result in Korean reunification, which for China could mean the replacement of an allied (if troublesome) state on its border with a possibly pro-Western, potentially hostile state.

The problem thus can only be contained and not solved. To reduce tensions, an initial step can be to negotiate, with China’s help, an agreement with North Korea to instate a moratorium on missile testing and a freeze on uranium and polonium enrichment at nuclear sites in exchange for some sanctions relief. However, any further negotiations to get President Kim to agree to further denuclearization in exchange for ending American-South Korean joint military exercises, as pushed for by the Chinese, may not be advisable given North Korea’s past reneging on promises. In 1994, President Bill Clinton promised aid to North Korea in exchange for freezing its nuclear program. By 2002, it was clear that North Korea had reneged on this deal. Thus, given North Korea’s history, it may not make sense to make a long-term deal with Kim Jong-un because he may not keep his side of the bargain, which may result in needless concessions given away to both North Korea and, by default, China. Therefore, the only solution to the North Korea problem may be a series of short-term deals, given the regime’s unreliability.

If all else fails, President Trump has left on the table the option of military strikes to take out North Korea’s nuclear facilities. However, dealing with nuclear weapons is complicated. Past presidents, including Bill Clinton, have considered targeted strikes on North Korea’s nuclear installations to destroy them, but such plans were shelved after considering the risks involved, including possible retaliation by Pyongyang on South Korea where American troops are stationed. Such a plan would be even riskier now considering that North Korea’s nuclear installations are now more dispersed throughout the country, making a clean hit of all nuclear facilities more difficult. Even if such a hit were successful, there is no telling what a cornered, reckless Kim Jong-un will do in response. While its nuclear program is what gets all the attention, North Korea also has a sophisticated arsenal of conventional and chemical weapons that it can use against American ally South Korea in retaliation.

The only thing that seems clear is that, unlike what President Trump thinks, the United States cannot simply “solve North Korea” or its nuclear problem with a snap of a finger. It is a complicated problem, and President Trump must not get into a war of words to match Kim Jong-un’s bellicose statements. If the United States follows through on threats to attack North Korea, the result will be disastrous, and if it does not, then it will damage US credibility and make any future threats carry less weight.  

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