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Kim Jong Un is a dangerous man overseeing a large concentration camp of slave labor.
The Trump administration has done a laudable job handling the North Korea crisis it inherited. The Obama administration had neglected the gathering North Korean threat under a policy called “strategic patience.” This followed a negotiated “deal” at the end of the Bush years that lifted important sanctions and other pressures that isolated the Kim dynasty, which followed other strategic blunders since the end of the Cold War. President Trump took office facing a nuclear North Korea that had accelerated the tempo of its missile and nuclear development programs and tests, and was close to weaponizing an ICBM. This all happened as the awful human rights conditions of North Koreans worsened, raising questions as to whether the US is really leading a so called “rules-based order” in Asia. Kim Jong Un essentially “governs” a criminal state that oversees a large concentration camp of slave labor.
Trump’s predecessors left him with the strategic options of long-term deterrence and containment or long-term moves to rid the peninsula of the Kim regime and unify the two Koreas. There are really no other options. All manner of “deals” have been attempted since 1993. The Kim family has been bribed, cajoled, and threatened. We have all the information we need about Kim’s intentions: Kim will never give up the nuclear weapons his family has relentlessly sought for decades. There are many reasons for this: Kim has noted that countries that have given up their nuclear weapons have not fared well, from Ukraine to Libya; he knows that if he has nuclear weapons, no country can really challenge his family’s manifold crimes, abuses, and provocations. The acquisition of nuclear weapons also fits well into the DPRK’s ideology of “self-reliance”—though what this means in practice is that ability to continue to either trade with nations or extort them to have the cash to stay in power. And, over the longer-term, nuclear weapons are key to his strategy of breaking the US-South Korea alliance and unifying the peninsula under his command.
The dark lesson of the North Korea experience is that a dictator hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons will gain one, despite America’s supposed fundamental interest in stopping the worst regimes from gaining the worst weapons.
Trump seems to be moving into a long-term strategy of containment and deterrence and weakening Kim. He has already secured the harshest sanctions the UN has arguably ever implemented. He has forged an exceptionally close tie with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, who will receive all the deterrent weaponry he desires from the Trump administration. He has even managed to form a close working relationship with the Korean progressive President Moon Jae-in, a feat that US presidents have found difficult with other progressive Korean leaders. Trump has China sufficiently worried about what he might do on the peninsula that it has been relatively quiescent.
This strategy is perfectly defensible as long as it has an end-state in mind. If Trump succeeds in garnering allied support for measures that cripple Kim and pressure China, strategists have to be able to answer the question: What next? President George W. Bush’s idea was that a set of activities that treated the Kim dynasty less as a “state” and more as a criminal entity would so hurt Kim Jong Il that he would be forced to give up his nuclear weapons programs in exchange for a set of security guarantees. But the administration had never really thought through its long-term strategic ends. For example, it never answered whether it was ready to keep the brutal dictator in place, even after he let go of his nuclear weapons. And, it never had an answer for the “Korean question”— the unnatural splitting of a peninsula that had been unified for most of its history.
The Trump team must move toward a strategy of ultimate unification of the peninsula. There are many main reasons for this. First, the nuclear problem is really a regime problem. The Kim family has made its legacy synonymous with becoming a nuclear state that can ultimately unify the peninsula on its own terms. Second, it is unclear whether long-term deterrence is stable. Northeast Asia would have to become very militarized. The military postures of Japan, South Korea, and the United States would have to favor the offense to be ready to strike down missiles and to keep Kim on the defensive. And it is unclear whether Japan and South Korea would remain non-nuclear. The US should still seek to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
There is also the Iran question—Tehran will almost surely “break out” if Kim is left in place with nuclear weapons. Iranians will have every incentive to obtain nuclear weapons as they see that it buys regime survival, the ability to coerce enemies, and threaten to break alliances with the US And there is non-trivial issue of the awful situation of North Koreans trapped in slave labor camps. Long-term deterrence would mean accepting their fates.
The strategy of maximum pressure and engagement should work toward unification. The North Korean elite that has stuck with Kim will feel the sting of pressure as well, as will China if we properly go after all entities that even enable trade with Kim. China is also feeling the vise of a closer Japan-South Korea-US tie that will soon have common missile defense, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and strike capability. As we wait for Beijing to feel the bite of sanctions against its own companies and the tightening of the US-South Korea-Japan alliances, it will have many incentives to work toward unification with us to reverse what it sees as negative trends.
There has been some good thinking in the policy world about how unification might be achieved, from offering amnesty communicated through an information campaign to North Korean elites who turn on Kim, to subversion through political warfare, to help to those North Koreans either looking to make their way to South Korea or to help undermine the regime. The US could lead efforts with South Korea to get information to regular and elite North Koreans through massive Korean-language broadcasting to the mass dropping of leaflets, USB drives, satellite phones, and so on. North Koreans would have to know how to help free themselves and become reassured about what unification would mean for them. Unconventional/covert warfare could be ramped up to undermine Kim’s legitimacy, and food can be dropped in to North Korea –all measures should be taken to show that Kim is not all-powerful.
These are just a sampling of ideas regarding how to prepare, or even encourage, North Koreans to take matters into their own hands. But only the US can lead the “high politics” of this effort. In close consultation with South Korea and Japan, the US should engage China, as it feels the bite of US military coercion and sanctions that effect the CCP, laying out a framework on unification that keeps US troops permanently South of the Yalu river, but removes the albatross of Kim that the U.S. will increasingly tie around China’s neck.
There is no doubt that this is a risky course full of strategic tradeoffs. For the US, the risks include insurgency in North Korea and a unified Korea that no longer sees the need for an alliance. But the fundamental strategic question now is: Can anything really be worse than a status quo that leaves a dangerous man in place with dangerous weapons, overseeing the world’s most abusive government?
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