The renowned historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a masterful history that described the events of August 1914 that led inexorably to World War I. This contains many parallels with today’s growing confrontation with North Korea. In her telling, what stood out was how inadvertently it played out over a century ago. Each party had goals and imperatives but none of the adversaries seemed to understand or account for those of their opponents. Moreover, the key figures making decisions were none too bright. Does this strike any bells?
It is often said that we have no good options. Indeed, many argue that the safest alternative is simply to accept a de facto nuclear power in North Korea, even one with a proven ICBM capability. We have done so with other countries. But there is a distinguishing characteristic of the North Korean regime that represents an unprecedented threat. Our best analysts believe that Kim Jong-un has concluded that his most effective nuclear strategy is to strike first with all available weapons in the event that his regime is at existential risk. When combined with his proven paranoid impulses, this establishes a ticking time bomb for major conflict in the region.
Those recommending a diplomatic resolution permit their hopes to blind them to the lessons of history. Diplomacy has a key role in this but only after our adversary has truly accepted it as the best course, not as a convenient diversion as in the past. This does not mean that there is nothing left but military confrontation. That is a false dichotomy, although a kind of warfare that falls short of direct conflict by major military forces may be required.
I can conceive of a promising though dangerous alternative, but one that involves activities for which we have shown little aptitude to date. It is based upon the hypothesis that Kim Jong-un is not a lunatic as some portray and that his sole and overriding imperative is to maintain his position of power. In this view, his unrelenting march toward nuclear power status derives from the belief that failure to follow through on comparable intentions was what led to the end of Saddam’s regime in Iraq and Gaddafi’s in Libya.
First and foremost, we must establish explicit, non-negotiable demands and make them abundantly clear. There must be no tweets and no mixed messages from disparate administration factions. Forcing Kim Jong-un to completely relinquish his most treasured protection is a bridge too far. We should only seek precisely two results. All nuclear testing and all long-range missile testing must end. This can be easily monitored. It will freeze his program in place, since live testing is the only method of establishing an operational and reliable weapon. He could retain his conventional power as an adequate defense.
We must have something worthwhile to offer in return for this concession. This could be the acceptance of a compliant North Korea into the global community of nations. This means the removal of sanctions, normalized trade, membership in community organizations, and so on. But this should be done slowly and in stages so that there remain benefits to be attained for a long period of time. And a violation on their part should instantly remove and reverse all benefits. Since the United States will have by itself achieved this resolution, we would retain sole authority to identify such a violation.
This kind of clearly defined carrot and stick approach was not employed with either Saddam or Gaddafi and it isn’t being used with Assad in Syria. I think this is mainly due to our blind sense of self-righteousness, combined with a crippling lack of realpolitik.
To achieve compliance, I propose that we initiate a major covert effort that incrementally applies painful pressure while never threatening to bring down Kim Jong-un’s regime. The word covert is key. We mustn’t announce this policy nor boast of its successes, political ramifications notwithstanding. Instead we should constantly employ world forums to reiterate our goals for the region. Primarily economic in nature, this effort can and should involve the kind of forceful acts that ISIS successfully employs. The key is always having plausible deniability while leaving the North Koreans no doubt whatsoever that we are directing these efforts. When accused by the North Koreans or their supporters, Russia and China, we should blandly deny all and refuse to discuss the matter. Great care is essential so that no single act would be enough to goad them into violent reaction, but the pressure should be painful, unrelenting and constantly increasing.
This can include all of the methods of non-conventional warfare. There would be no limiting rules of engagement whatsoever except one. There can be no use of weapons of mass destruction. Whatever else would work and cause pain should be on the table. It must be carefully targeted at the regime itself, not the North Korean people at large, though we should not be squeamish about inevitable collateral damage. No warfare spares the innocent, though we certainly shouldn’t use them as pawns in our struggle. And make no mistake, this is a kind of war.
Economic measures will require cooperation by the international banking system. From past experience we cannot expect voluntary help. It must be coerced and we have the tools to do this if we are willing to risk offending some trading partners and enduring some costs ourselves. This effort must also be covert. If we meet resistance it should be made clear that there can be no economic neutrals in this conflict.
Any open counter-response must be immediately and overtly countered with something comparable and proportionate. This should appear to be automatic and preplanned so that our adversary would have no expectation that their acts would serve to reduce the pressure. For example, if they sink a South Korean vessel, as they have done before, we should promptly sink a comparable one of theirs. There would be no talk, no bluster, no warning, and also no escalation, just essentially a robotic counteraction.
A necessary correlative is that we should tone down our current provocative military posture in the region. There should be no more joint military exercises with the South Koreans, no further expansion of our THAAD systems, and definitely no deployment of naval forces to the region. There must never appear to be a connection between actions on the ground and our covert campaign of pressure.
We should expect a counter campaign of some sort from the North Koreans. They have a proven capability for non-conventional warfare, especially in the cyber realm. We won’t go undamaged. But our capability is far greater and more lethal, assuming we have the steel in our backbone to use it. Any counterattack should provoke an escalation of our campaign. Fortunately, in a sense, we can freely publicize their attacks so that public support for a strong response should be high. As a result, we may consider pulling back the curtain just a bit on our ongoing efforts.
We must never unilaterally offer to negotiate or even to talk with the North Koreans, but we should be willing to respond quickly and positively to any such offer on their part that involves no preconditions. However, offers like this from their interlocutors in China should be ignored. China is not our friend in this conflict and we shouldn’t vainly hope otherwise. Meanwhile, such talks that do arise should have absolutely no effect on our covert campaign until they bear concrete results that meet our goals. The rule is no concessions to achieve compliance.
So, that summarizes my idea. It involves significant risk, but I believe that so do all currently discussed alternatives. And, in my opinion, permitting the nuclear program in North Korea to fully ripen is virtually certain to lead to nuclear war. It would be simpler to kick the can down the road, hoping that events will overtake the need for action. If we do this, history won’t treat us well.
But let me expand upon what I said at the beginning. Doing this successfully requires calm precision, careful planning, ruthlessness and, above all, discipline. Not a single one of these requirements can be met under the erratic and incompetent Trump administration. Thus, this must wait for a more competent replacement. Whether we can afford this delay is an open question.