No Easy Answers for North Korea

Twenty-five years of ‘talking’ with North Korea, going back to the Clinton Administration, has done little.  More than two decades ago, President Clinton thought that he had come to terms that would limit North Korea’s nuclear development.  In 1994, he reached an agreement for North Korea to limit its nuclear program in return for normalized economic and diplomatic relations with the United States.

Needless to say, that agreement has done nothing.   Without reciting a history of the last two decades, suffice it to say that the kingdom of North Korea (the current leader, Kim Jong Un, took over from his father who took over from his father) has moved forward to develop nuclear weapons no matter what the cost.  Just in the last week, North Korea has launched a missile over Japan and violated Japan’s sovereignty in doing so, it has tested another nuclear device and yesterday it threatened to disrupt the US power grid by the use of electromagnetic weapons.   And the provocations have not just been military.  If you remember a couple of years ago, North Korea hacked into Sony’s corporate systems.

Nothing has steered North Korea away from its single-minded pursuit of military and nuclear power.  Funding of the military has resulted in several famines, costing thousands of lives over the years.  International sanctions have increased the pressure on the country and its people.  But Kim Jong Un lives his lavish lifestyle and doesn’t care about the starvation of his people, as long as he can keep building his weapons.  No negotiation, no international resolutions or diplomatic pressure and no economic pressure has worked in more than two decades.  So whatever the resolution, it’s not any of those things.  Two decades ought to prove that.   When politicians say ‘talk’, ‘negotiate’ or whatever, you also have to have someone who is willing to do the same.  We often make the mistake that North Korea and its madman have the same values that we do or are willing to give up nuclear weapons.  But that simply isn’t the case, and the evidence says that is the most important thing to North Korea’s leader.

The issue seems complex, but actually the issue is simple.  The solution is complex.  The issue is that North Korea will stop at literally nothing to develop nuclear weapons.  And with Kim Jong Un as its leader, a madman as out of control as Hitler but without Germany’s economy behind him, we can’t be sure that North Korea won’t actually use the weapons it develops.

Sanctions haven’t worked and they have been tightened to the point that there probably isn’t much more that can be done to effect.  South Korea’s capital of Seoul is less than an hour’s drive from the border with the North.  And Japan is roughly as far as Miami is from Indianapolis.  So any military option puts these allies at extreme risk.

The only other options are extreme, but the alternative is to allow North Korea to develop both nuclear weapons and the missiles to launch them against anyone on the planet.   If that is not something we want to live with, then it’s clear that nothing that has been tried will work and negotiation isn’t an option.   Two thoughts come to mind, each with deep risks and so would likely need the agreement of our allies in South Korea and Japan, which would be much more hesitant to act since they are closer to the danger.

One would be a blockade of North Korea, using the might of the US Navy to keep all commerce in and out from moving.  Unfortunately, North Korea is not an island and could still move goods through China if China allows it.  And a blockade would almost certainly draw a North Korean response.  The only question—and it would be a large gamble—would be if they would respond with their Navy only (and vainly) or escalate the military confrontation and, if so, how far?

The other option is to take out Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea.   Assassinating the head of a government is a big deal and not to be done lightly but this clearly is an exceptional case.   It would not really be ‘regime change’ in that we would not be trying to overthrow the government, which China worries would cause refugee problems on their border.  We would simply be taking out one person and the government could, theoretically, continue functioning (though admittedly, in North Korea the government is closely tied to the king)  That person, and maybe not the whole government, is the one that threatens international peace.   We are not nearly as concerned with North Korea’s domestic issues (we should be but maybe not enough to intervene) but we certainly are concerned when some madman threatens nuclear war.   However, we tried that with Fidel Castro for years and never succeeded so that option is not one that we can count on.

So what’s the answer?   The issue is simple, the answer is complex and so no one has a good one.  But for twenty-five years we have thought the problem of a crazy person with nuclear weapons would be handled by someone down the road.  We are now at the end of the road.

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