Solving the North Korea problem requires our best understanding of everybody’s needs.
Two grown men are publicly calling each other names, a childish spat that rises from annoying to alarming because both Kim Jong Un and Donald J. Trump have nuclear weapons.
When I watch the news lately, I only have to close my eyes and I’m back in rural Oklahoma about the time the Korean War ended, fussing with my cousins.
My grandmother yells: You kids settle down!
She is met by a collective whine: He started it!
Y’all better work it out or I’m going to finish it.
That’s when we knew nobody was going to win. It’s good to remember that feeling when politicians of any stripe pretend that use of nuclear weapons is thinkable.
Those who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis know this feeling of helplessness.
Those of us who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis are familiar with this feeling of helplessness in the face of a real possibility that the hellish inferno of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may be unleashed again.
In 1962, both sides gave a little. Missiles moved out of Cuba and out of Turkey but the U.S. and Soviet missiles that could have caused mass casualties and nuclear winter remained in their silos.
That example of compromise is cold comfort in a time when compromise has become a sign of weakness. Compromise may join a growing list of Cold War tools that have not proven useful for managing the relationship between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Containment turned into a game of international whack-a-mole.
There is talk of “containment,” the policy some people credit with stopping Soviet expansionism. In practice, containment turned into a game of international whack-a-mole played out in an endless string of proxy wars.
In the case of the DPRK, there is not much containing to be done. Kim Jong Un’s only goal that involves real estate is the same goal that his grandfather Kim Il Sung was pursuing when he tried to reunify the Korean Peninsula by military force.
Kim Il Sung’s war — technically still going on because the armistice never bloomed into a peace treaty — played a role in the worldwide conflict with Communism, but the objective was limited to conquest of the Republic of Korea (ROK). The racial attitudes common in both Koreas make them unlikely to merge other than with each other and therefore the Korean Peninsula is the only real estate at issue.
The state ideology of the DPRK, Juche, is translated (when it is translated) “Self-reliance.” A society practicing Juche is self-contained. They don’t call DPRK the Hermit Kingdom for nothing, and it’s no accident that it has been able to shrug off wave after wave of economic sanctions. Of course, it helps to ignore economic sanctions if feeding your population is not a top priority.
The next arrow in the Cold War
quiver was deterrence.
The next arrow in the Cold War quiver was deterrence. In its purest form, the U.S. and the USSR called it M.A.D. — mutual assured destruction. Most observers agreed it was mad, but it’s not clear that the DPRK is equipped to play. The price of admission is second strike capability. We have it and they don’t.
Having established that the DPRK is not the Soviet Union, we still know it is threatening us, the ROK, and Japan. Guam is “us” because it’s a U.S. territory where our duty to defend has no limits.
North Korean threats are for North Korean reasons, not Chinese or Russian reasons. China and Russia love to watch us squirm, but Kim Jong Un is not their instrument and he is not subject to immediate control as his grandfather was subject to control by Stalin or Mao Zedong.
Juche assures that North Korea acts for its own purposes. Juche was Kim Il Sung’s theory but his successors have turned the theory to praxis. For that reason, we cannot rely on any other nation to avoid the consequences of a nuclear North Korea.
Even if he doesn’t use his weapons, we cannot deter him from selling them.
Hearing Kim Jong Un’s noise, we might consider the consequence to be a nuclear strike in California. More likely for a nation in dire economic circumstances and outside the legal order, the consequence is sale of nuclear materials to all comers. Even if we could deter Kim Jong Un from using his weapons, we cannot deter him from selling them.
One strand of North Korean research is miniaturization. We worry that it will enable a warhead small enough to take advantage of the throw-weight their current missiles will handle to move the effective range from the West Coast to somewhere in the Midwest.
We should worry that North Korea will produce a nuclear weapon small enough and light enough to attract customers who don’t care about throw-weight because they intend a more direct method of delivery. Say, a container ship bound for Oakland or Galveston or a truck driven across the open borders of the European Union to strike at the heart of the EU in Brussels.
Nobody wants to be incinerated, so prevention of nuclear war should top all lists.
Solving the North Korea problem requires the best understanding we can get of everybody’s needs. Nobody wants to be incinerated, so prevention of nuclear war should top all lists. All nations in the region rationally fear becoming collateral damage in a nuclear exchange, but there are a few core interests held by key players that must be accounted for in any solution.
The U.S. and its allies want assurance that Kim Jong Un will not use his nuclear arsenal to force every issue with the ROK, a realistic fear given the number of attacks with conventional weapons he has instigated since the armistice. More important, we must keep rogue nations and terrorist organizations from acquiring nuclear weapons off a North Korean shelf.
China wants to avoid a unified and democratic Korea on its border. China is also concerned about fallout from any use of nuclear weapons and a refugee crisis along its Korean border. Compared to these issues, the trade China does with North Korea is trivial.
South Korea wants to maintain its independence. Ruling a unified Korea is a distant second.
Kim Jong Un’s priority is preservation
of the Kim Dynasty.
Our best intelligence is that Kim Jong Un’s priority is preservation of the Kim Dynasty. Ruling a unified Korea is a distant second.
The problem with a diplomatic solution to this web of concerns is that the core issues do not admit compromise. We can’t let Kim sell just a few nuclear weapons and Kim can’t give up just a little bit of his absolute power. Should even one nuclear weapon be detonated on the surface in either Korea, China’s core interests are directly threatened.
This is more complicated than the juvenile tit-for-tat that has most of the world transfixed. A logical place to seek solutions is to survey the nations that ended their nuclear programs when success was very near or the even shorter list of nations that actually had a few bombs but gave them up.
The cost of maintaining a nuclear arsenal produced very little benefit.
There seem to be three primary reasons for ending nuclear weapons programs, and the one that will not move the DPRK is cost-benefit analysis. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus inherited nuclear weapons from the demise of the Soviet Union. The cost of maintaining a nuclear arsenal produced very little benefit and when the United States offered to pay the costs of dismantling the weapons, the three former Soviet republics took the money and exited the nuclear club, shipping most of the warheads to Russia.
Sweden ran weapons research in tandem with atomic power for electricity. Confronted with the fact that they could build a bomb but a delivery system would still impose substantial costs, the Swedes ended weapons development and signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Another reason for abandoning nuclear weapons research is coming to the realization that the major threats the government faces are internal rather than external. That stopped weapons research short of a bomb in Argentina and Brazil and motivated South Africa to destroy six bombs already built.
International carrots and sticks
account for the rest.
International carrots and sticks account for the rest. The sticks stopped Libya, which gave up nuclear research in exchange for a lifting of sanctions, and Iraq, which had its nuclear facilities destroyed by an Israeli bombing raid in 1981 and again 10 years later by the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War.
The primary carrots for ending nuclear weapons programs have been inclusion under the protective umbrella of U.S. nuclear weapons or acquisition of high tech weapons systems short of nuclear. These ways to defend without nukes persuaded Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.
President Trump has been on both sides of the nuclear proliferation issue, but when he is not troubled by proliferation he is most likely to suggest that South Korea and Japan should have their own nuclear weapons. This uncertainty complicates dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program.
Trump and Kim both persist in treating their differences as a military issue.
Trump and Kim both persist in treating their differences as a military issue. The strength of their respective militaries is not subject to reasonable dispute, but how that picks a winner remains mysterious. Kim the bully is not going to be bullied out of his nuclear program.
Our government, which probably means the president until we get a fully staffed and functional State Department, needs to decide if our goal is the Kim Dynasty out of power.
If not, we have a much bigger reward to dangle than lifting sanctions: Recognition of Kim’s government as legitimately ruling North Korea, de jure joining de facto. That dangle would require diplomatic legerdemain to get South Korea on board, a task difficult to imagine with the State Department in its current condition.
If we do wish to adopt regime change as a goal without using military force, the task becomes a technical one, to erase the border between the Koreas so the people in the DPRK can see what the Kim Dynasty has done to them.
All that is necessary is access to the
World Wide Web.
In the Cold War, the U.S. produced content for broadcast on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Piercing the technological walls around the Hermit Kingdom requires no content. All that is necessary is access to the World Wide Web, which contains plenty of content. There would be some culture shock, but that is the price of admission to cyberspace.
North Korea has a 3G network and a locally produced knockoff of the iPhone that runs on a home-grown operating system called Red Star, which has some extra bells and whistles. An embedded app called Traceviewer takes random screen shots periodically for easier detection of forbidden content. Some versions of Red Star render media files unreadable unless they contain a government seal of approval.
The government tries to limit web surfing to an intranet featuring approved websites in the double digits. Cell phone signals are jammed along the Chinese border, limiting the usefulness of even a dumb phone.
Journalist Jocko Willink suggested that we drop 25 million iPhones on North Korea.
A former SEAL turned journalist, Jocko Willink, tweeted the suggestion that the U.S. drop 25 million iPhones on North Korea and put satellites over them beaming down free Wi-Fi. It would be more to the point to clone the North Korean smart phone and enable it to toggle between Red Star and a content neutral operating system.
Many observers doubt that connecting the DPRK to the rest of the world would cause change. While that may be, it’s a rational alternative to military action. The objective is not so much to cause change as to cause the Kim regime to fear change. Their current policies show a great deal of fear already, and when the fear of internal interference exceeds the fear of external interference, other nations have forsaken nuclear weapons.
The United States, to the extent it can bring South Korea along, can have absolute control over the degree of external threat. If it is part of the strategy to dial down external threat, the Dotard would have to get on board. Not only would he need to quit pissing on Rocket Man’s shoes, it would even be useful to… apologize.
All right, I understand I’m going too far to even dream of Donald J. Trump apologizing for anything to anybody. He seems to lack the wiring necessary to admit fault in anything.
There are two reasons the nonviolent policies set out here are unlikely to stop the rush toward a new Korean War. One reason is that Trump has dismantled the State Department, cutting the budget and failing to nominate the undersecretaries who would be responsible for the diplomatic hat tricks that would be required.
The other problem is that the U.S. side of the dispute with the DPRK would require a grownup at the helm. Right now, we have two little boys in the schoolyard one-upping each other. When either of these fools touches off a nuclear weapon, that is when we’ll know that nobody is going to win.
[Steve Russell comes to The Rag Blog after writing for The Rag from 1969 to the mid-seventies. He is retired from a first career as a trial court judge in Texas and a second career as a university professor that began at The University of Texas-San Antonio. He is now associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. Russell is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a ninth grade dropout. He is living in Sun City, just north of Austin, and working on a third career as a freelance writer. His current project is a book of autobiographical essays explaining how an Indian ninth grade dropout was able to become a judge and a professor without picking up a high school diploma or a GED.He can be reached at email@example.com. ]
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