A New Strategy against North Korea?
The tensions around the Korean peninsula have escalated yet again, following the release of evidence that Pyongyang ordered the March torpedo attack on a South Korean ship. In recent days, the two Koreas have cut off most relations with one another, and the North has unleashed a new series of threats. The United States has voiced strong support for its South Korean ally, and the United Nations Security Council will discuss a new resolution on sanctions against Pyongyang.
This is serious stuff. It appears that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is using his recent belligerence to build internal support for a transition in power to his youngest, and largely unknown, son. For the conservative South Korean government and the United States, a direct and unprovoked attack on a sovereign state´s naval forces, operating in international waters, demands retaliation. The North Koreans and other observers must not think they can attack the ships of other states at their whim. They also must not believe that a small nuclear capability offers protection against reprisals. Otherwise, the incentives for more attacks and more nuclear proliferation, in East Asia and other parts of the world, will only increase.
The U.S. strategy toward North Korea, from the second term of the Bush presidency through the first two Obama years, has focused on containing Pyongyang through close cooperation with regional allies, awaiting the regime´s internal collapse. This still appears wise, but also insufficient. Recent aggression reinforces the long-standing fear that Kim Jong-il is willing to immolate the entire region for the sake of prolonging his regime, or at least making its self-destruction globally devastating. Kim will not follow the path of Erich Honecker and the other East German leaders who peacefully accepted the post-communist transformation of their government in 1989.
So what else should the United States and its allies do? There are no good options, but that observation does not justify strategic inertia. Here are 3 ideas the United States should consider for a new strategy against North Korea, short of war:
1. Increase forced information penetration of North Korean society. The South Koreans recently set up new loudspeakers near the border. We could also initiate aerial leaflet drops, new radio broadcasts, and other efforts to undermine Kim Jong-il´s totalitarian control of information in his society. Even if these actions show limited results, they will raise the costs of the regime´s recent aggression for its leader. If Kim wants to remain unchallenged at home, he must limit his belligerence abroad. Otherwise, we will use our technology and other means to bring our message into his society.
2. Cut off energy supplies. North Korea is dependent on energy imports, mostly from China, to fuel its military machine. Its citizens live energy-starved lives so that the military can threaten its neighbors. Its nuclear technology supports destructive weapons rather than basic societal needs. If we want to halt the continued functioning of the North Korean military, embargoeing energy imports is a fast and easy path to that outcome. The North Koreans will surely threaten a military reprisal, but we can respond with the offer for renewed energy imports after evidence of North Korean non-belligerence. This approach does risk a North Korean decision for war, but that might be an unavoidable risk under present circumstances. An energy embargo can have real effects on North Korea and force a possible change in its policies, if the U.S. is firm and builds support for this approach in China, South Korea, and Japan. If all of these states do not immediately agree, even the threat of an energy embargo might inspire a rethinking in North Korea.
3. As much as we might not like it, the time may have come for strategic military strikes against North Korea´s nuclear facilities. We cannot allow a regime that has attacked its neighbor´s navy to follow with threats of similar unprovoked nuclear attacks. We cannot allow a regime with this record of aggression to continue loose talk of launching nuclear missiles. If this continues, Japan and South Korea will surely feel more internal pressure to develop their own nuclear capabilities, setting off a greater arms race in the region and around the world. Nothing could have worse implications for U.S. non-proliferation efforts. The North Koreans and other observers (especially in Iran) must know that their nuclear efforts will become military targets if they are coupled with aggressive moves against their neighbors. This approach might induce a North Korean act of war, but that again might be a risk worth taking. Otherwise, we have set a precedent for accepting aggression and nuclear proliferation in East Asia and other regions. The future war that is likely in this scenario is worse than anything that would come from military strikes on nascent nuclear belligerents today.
As I said earlier, none of these are good options. The present course of containment, however, appears worse as it allows North Korea to attack its enemies at whim, pay few costs, and procure concessions that prolong the regime and its threatening behavior. To break out of this vicious cycle, the U.S. and its allies should consider some difficult alternatives. Effective strategy requires exactly this kind of thinking, staring into the abyss and contemplating necessary sacrifices and lesser evils.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.
Thanks for the post, Professor Suri. I’m wondering what you think the likely North Korean response to option #3 would be. Do you see an all-out war as the inevitable result of any strikes on North Korea, or do you think something between no response and total war is more likely? Thanks!
You raise an excellent and troubling question, Andy. How will North Korea respond if we strike some of its nuclear sites? Pyongyand might very well respond with a devastating attack on Seoul. That would, however, trigger the certain destruction of the North Korean regime by the United States, South Korea, Japan, and probably China. My guess is that American strikes, targeted solely on a small number of North Korean nuclear sites, would trigger an open struggle between Kim Jong-il and his military leaders about how to respond. We would probably see more limited North Korean strikes at sea, and maybe some limited strikes across the South Korean border. I do not think the North Korean military will sign its own death warrant in a full attack on Seoul.
The pressure of the moment might even create regime change in North Korea. We really do not know what will happen, and the risks are very real. We must ask ourselves, however, are we any better off in the present circumstances, where the North Koreans continue to threaten their neighbors and survive on our continued concessions to their belligerence. What kind of precedent are we setting for regimes that are watching this play out?