Dancing on the Precipice: The United States and North Korea



A 2016 Rally in North Korea. (KCNA via Reuters).


It’s up to you whether the nation called the United States exists on this planet or not,” has been just one of the many statements coming from North Korea as the crisis over their nuclear program continues to escalate. The past summer bore witness to North Korean nuclear tests and ballistic missile tests, including one over Japan. This has led to a simmering crisis that lacks clear answers or resolutions. While it is tempting to occasionally joke and laugh at the absurd and fanciful depictions of U.S. destruction in North Korea’s 1990s style propaganda videos, they go far beyond the vague, propagandistic threats of destruction that North Korea has been issuing for decades. These recent threats are more serious and serve as prescient reminders that any war with North Korea would rapidly extend to South Korea, Japan and beyond. While war remains unlikely, these threats show that Kim Jong-un is serious about the development of his nuclear missile program. He will not be deterred and is willing to face almost any cost to accomplish his goals. Thus, we must plan around North Korea acquiring nuclear capability and prepare a long term plan to resolve the situation. The most practical plan to accomplish this would be an attempt to co-opt the North Korean elite by convincing them that their lives would be better off under reunification with South Korea, as opposed to Kim Jong-un’s tyrannical rule.

The United Nations Security Council (U.N. Security Council) has responded to North Korean provocations by unanimously passing even more restrictive sanctions against North Korea, which limit oil imports and cost it a billion dollars in lost trade. Instead of backing down, North Korea launched Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States’ West Coast over Japan on August 28th. Rather than trying to reduce tensions, Kim Jong-Un has clearly shown that he is still willing to raise tensions and dance closer to the brink of war if it means acquiring credible deterrence in the form of nuclear capable ICBMs. These diplomatic initiatives, even with Chinese and Russian support, are unlikely to truly deter North Korea.

At the end of the day North Korea cares little for what China or Russia think. The North Korean ideology of Juche emphasizes Korean independence and self-reliance no matter the cost. Consequently, it is not surprising that North Korea doesn’t care to be dependent upon their neighbors in China and Russia, who, of course, have their own agendas. Yet, China and Russia still fear the enormous sheer volume of refugees and economic disruption that would result from open conflict or the collapse of the North Korean regime. It is not an exaggeration to state that a serious Korean conflict could run into the trillions of dollars in damage. Even conservative estimates predict that a second Korean War would see casualties in the hundreds of thousands, and potentially thousands of Chinese citizens as well. Even without nuclear weapons North Korea could still cause immense damage to Seoul, while North Korea’s nuclear capable IBCMs could extend the damage to U.S. cities and territories.

North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons also presents a strategic dilemma for the United States. If conflict were to break out again, North Korea could threaten the United States with strikes on the West Coast. The United States would have to choose whether to abandon their allies to North Korea, or to call Kim Jong-Un’s bluff – an unenviable choice to be sure. A similar dilemma in Europe during the Cold War led several NATO states to seriously consider pursuing nuclear programs, if not acquiring nuclear weapons altogether. In the case of North Korea, it means there is a real possibility of South Korea and Japan pursuing nuclear weapons programs. This could consequently threaten China and encourage them to increase and strengthen their own arsenal. In what is termed the “use-it-or-lose-it dilemma,” North Korea’s limited arsenal would likely be vulnerable to U.S. strikes early on in a potential conflict. Therefore, they may face incentives to deploy limited nuclear strikes as a last gambit to threaten the U.S. and South Korea  and force them to back down from any confrontation. In such a scenario, would the U.S. retaliate with a strike of its own when North Korea still possess the capability to further escalate the situation with additional nuclear strikes aimed at the West Coast?

One argument is that the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, (M.A.D.), will keep the peace between the United States and North Korea. The concept of M.A.D. was developed during the Cold War as the United States and the Soviet Union developed massive arsenals of nuclear weapons. The rationale was that if one side launched their missiles, the other side would also launch. Thus, the guaranteed destruction of both sides deterred the use of nuclear weapons.  However, it is uncertain to what degree this theory even holds true. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union seemed to be great practitioners of this theory because their actions indirectly undermined the principles of M.A.D. The United States has been pursuing ballistic missile defense since at least the 1980s, which, if it were ever truly perfected, would render M.A.D. obsolete. Destruction would be neither mutual nor assured. On the other hand, the Soviet Union generated a comprehensive strategy of preparedness to survive a full scale nuclear strike. The seriousness of this pursuit raises questions as to whether the Soviet Union ever believed in M.A.D., or if they preferred the capabilities to fight and win a nuclear war if necessary. If M.A.D. remains a flawed theory, how much can we rely on it to keep the peace between North Korea and the United States?

At the same time, we must consider the internal stability of North Korea. Kim Jong-Thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, was initially believed to be the true power behind the throne. But his execution and the ensuing purge of more than 140 senior military and government officials revealed that Kim Jong-un’s prioritized retaining power, even if it meant murdering his own uncle. Most recently, he also ordered the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, his older brother, as there were rumors that a coup may attempt to put in Kim Jong-Nam as leader of North Korea. There is little hope of Kim Jong-Un turning to reforms to change his government: he had reformers, but instead of accepting their advice he put them in front of a firing squad and executed them.

Kim Jong-un has shown that he will hold onto power no matter the cost. While these purges have allowed Kim Jong-un to consolidate his position, he rules more by fear than anything else. This may present opportunities among the North Korean elite over the long term. Our policy to deal with North Korea over the long term should be to drive a wedge between the North Korean elites and the Kim dynasty. This may take decades, so we should prepare a long-term plan that is backed up by real political will in both the United States and South Korea.

Ideally, to make the plan even more likely to succeed, we should enlist the aid of China, if only tacitly, as well. China fears the geopolitical threat of a United States ally with troops, on their border. Therefore we should offer to withdraw the majority of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula when the crisis is resolved. Once the immediate peacekeeping needs of reunification have been met, we would then agree to not station any combat troops north of the present demilitarized zone. Furthermore South Korea would be absorbed with the process of reunification for decades, and thus it is unlikely it would be in a position to be a threat to China for the foreseeable future. If we address China’s geopolitical concerns, then this plan stands a chance at attaining China’s tacit consent.

However, the compromises that would be required to entice the North Korean elite would be a “deal with the devil.” Needless to say, it would involve overlooking most crimes committed by officials within the North Korean government. In this hypothetical co-opting of North Korean elites, the number of people who face any real punishment for their crimes would be small and likely compose of the Kim dynasty and some higher ups at the very top. To attempt to prosecute everyone would likely spur a violent reaction against any attempt at unification that would prolong and deepen the crisis.  

On a fundamental level, this would involve restructuring the incentives faced by the North Korean elite so that reunification, or at least the end of Kim Jong-un, appears as a more attractive option. At present, they have little to no reason to cooperate with either the U.S. or South Korea. Whilst unclear, their fate, in the event of reunification, would likely involve being stripped of their wealth, power, and position in society. In the case of some, this could even involve lengthy prison sentences or execution.

This present dynamic is even more dangerous when we consider the many unknown factors within North Korea. It is quite possible that rebellion or internal strife within the country would catch us by surprise. If this did happen, it is unlikely we could accurately calculate the motivations, intentions, and capabilities of all the various internal factions within the North Korean elite. Needless to say, such a situation would be very dangerous, and, presently, the U.S. would have little ability to control the situation. This is not an unprecedented scenario, the collapse of the Soviet Union also caught many off-guard, and with North Korea’s uncertain internal stability it remains a possibility.

In order to find a solution to the threat posed by North Korea we should create a policy plan that contains aggressive actions by North Korea in the short term, while laying the groundwork for a unification plan with North Korea which properly incorporates the North Korean elite. South Korea should thus prepare to incorporate North Korean elite officials into a prospective unified government. One practical way this could be accomplished would be appointing North Korean mayors and governors as deputies to new South Korean mayors and governors. These North Korean officials would be an important bridge between two very different societies, enabling South Korean officials to more effectively reach North Korean citizens while giving North Korean elites a stake in a new Korea. At the same time as deputies, they would still be subordinate to South Korean officials, thus alleviating South Korean fears of sabotage and corruption.

In addition, South Korea will have to decide how to incorporate the vast pool of wealth and cash that has been illicitly accumulated by many within the North Korean elite. A solution to this – which would simultaneously encourage North Korean elites to bring needed capital back into the country – would be to levy a one-time 15 percent tax on any such assets which were fully disclosed to the South Korean government. This would be low enough that North Korean elites would likely agree to pay, and low enough to satisfy voters in South Koreans who would reject the idea of North Korean elites not paying a price for their actions. These funds could then be brought into the legitimate economy and used to help finance reunification.

While Kim Jong-un may respond to these efforts by cracking down further on the North Korean elites, he may be more limited than we realize. Firstly, the punishments for disobedience in North Korea are already quite steep: though three generations of family members are subject to punishment, people continue to defect and engage in illicit business. Furthermore, if Kim Jong-un moves to suppress the rise of the black-market economy, this could spur a reaction amongst North Korean elites who depend on these black market revenues. In addition, these markets play a key role in providing for the North Korean people and preventing a return of famine. Thus, trying to shut down these markets would, if taken too far, incite the elites to revolt and imperil the food security of North Koreans. Even if this policy of appealing to the North Korean elite isn’t an immediate success, it will at least make Kim Jong-un question those around him and this resulting paranoia will hurt his efforts to rule the country.

North Korea arguably remains one of the most pressing crises the world faces at this moment. It is one of the few areas where there is a real risk of state to state warfare, which would generate unthinkable losses. Even if this doesn’t occur, North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons will embolden it to continue violently confronting South Korea, similar to its bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island. Therefore we need to find a long term resolution to North Korea which will permanently remove the threat of war and nuclear destruction. If we continue negotiating with North Korea as we have previously, while ignoring all signs that they will never give up their nuclear weapons, then we will see a worsening crisis with consequences increasing over time. By building a structure of incentives for reunification for the North Korean elite, and driving a wedge between them and the Kim dynasty, we can build a relatively peaceful path to resolve the crisis. There are no immediate solutions for North Korea, or their possession of nuclear weapons, but if we choose not to adopt this strategy we will have to ask ourselves: what is our long term strategy with North Korea? We need to consider these fundamental questions, because at the moment we continue to hurdle towards a crisis without any clear resolution or strategy.

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