North Korea has developed and begun deploying nuclear armed ICBMs capable of hitting Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the western United States. Tensions are rising and Kim Jong Un and Trump are now sparing over a threat to the U.S territory of Guam issued by the regime to fire a salvo of IRBMs at the waters surrounding the American island.
With North Korea on the precipice of an nuclear deterrent the United States will face some very tough choices in the coming years that will determine the course of the American policy in East Asia.
I’ll be frank; I have no confidence that we can stop the North Korean missile or nuclear program at this point with diplomacy or any other non-Kinetic means. Even with a whirlwind shift from both China and the Trump administration I don’t see a positive outcome given the time constraints and the political situation.
The window for denuclearization has passed. Even peace advocates agree that North Korea is unlikely to accept, or even consider such a proposal given the current state of their nuclear program and the investment in pro-nuclear propaganda both domestically and internationally.
The Perry doctrine then, where the end result of pressure and sanctions are negotiations to stall the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programs is becoming increasingly unrealistic given the advanced state of those programs. Freezing this program where it stands is simply not a politically viable option. The North already has the ability to mount a warhead onto a missile that could reach American bases in the region.
An agreement to freeze their program would also come at the cost unacceptable political and military cost to the United States. Kim has made his demands clear: the U.S would be asked to abandon or roll back it’s commitments to South Korea and release most of the sanctions on the North in exchange for a deal that would allow North Korea to keep it’s nuclear weapons.
With political options lacking viability we find ourselves on the losing end of a stalemate, where the North Korean’s are able to use our risk aversion of it’s advantage.
With the United States is in willing to accept a De Jure nuclear armed North Korea or lose face to the Kim Regime in the domestic or international arenas, the crisis has festered. As time passes Kim will continue to build up it’s nuclear program.
Donald Trump’s approach to the DPRK is essentially a more aggressive rebrand of the failed Bush and Obama policies. Trump (really Mattis and McMaster) are sending carriers to the region and continuing to hold exercises with South Korea. There is also engagement with China to stop accepting coal shipments from the DPRK and new sanctions are being discussed. It’s what you might call “strategic impatience.”
Trump’s strategy, much like the past two administrations, is less of a strategy and more of a tactic. There is no clear political end game in mind. The U.S continues to impose sanctions and shift military assets around the Pacific as a show of strength hoping that Kim Jong Un will either be deposed or the regime will ask seek terms. This is also highly unrealistic given the goals and strategic position of the regime.
Goals of the Kim Regime
The primary goal of the North Korean regime is to sustain itself regardless of the cost. With the bomb they see themselves as safe from an American intervention A la Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Grenada, Panama. etc.
In this calculus the needs of the North Korean people, biological or otherwise are not given much weight. Their society is militarized to the extreme. Billions of dollars out of North Korea’s tiny economy are spent on it’s nuclear program and the military even as basic needs like subsistence go unmet. Even with the food shortages the regime still pushes large families to keep the population up. Any argument that the regime sees the populace as anything more than potential soldiers is hardly a strong one.
Because of this, sanctions that effect the ability of the people to live will not weigh heavily on the regime unless the situation becomes completely unbearable as in the 1990s where an estimated three million people died of starvation.
There is little chance the people would rise up against the regime in any case. The DPRK is a sealed society based around the cult worship of the Kim family. The denizens of the DPRK are virtual slaves; many of which know no other reality than the one presented to them by the regime. A coup would only possible from the higher echelons of regime where the power is concentrated and then, only if they believed catastrophe was imminent.
The threat of force also has little effect on the regime. Kim knows the bluff. He knows the United States is hesitant to attack him when he has over 1100 pieces of artillery aimed at the South Korean capital, along with dozens of submarines and an arsenal of ballistic missiles that could kill thousands of Americans, Japanese and South Koreans.
To Kim, both approaches, the sanctions and the threat of force become two sides of same regime change strategy. He does not trust the United States to keep a bargain and every day the United States fails to topple his regime is a day the North gets closer to a functional nuclear deterrent. Kim has every reason to keep going ahead with his nuclear weapons program and very little reason to negotiate.
The Strategic Dynamic
Clausewitz noted that war (and politics by extension) is like a duel where two opponents actively attempt to overpower each other. American views of North Korea however, describe them as a problem, rather than as an active and dynamic opponent that has it’s own goals and will resist attempts to disarm it.
There is also an element of hubris that is blinding America to the reality of the situation. There is a belief that because the United States is so powerful it can exercise unlimited control over another country if it is willing to try hard enough. We see this today with people who still contend that we lost in Vietnam because we were unwilling to use enough force.
The same basic issue applies today in the politics of North Korea. Even though America’s power dwarfs the DPRK in nearly every dimension, the advantages of the defense put Kim on the high ground. America has limited goals but is unwilling to employ even limited force (i.e “all measures short of war”). North Korea on the other hand has even more limited goal (survival) and is willing to use unlimited force (i.e begin a nuclear war) to achieve to it.
There is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the DPRK’s nuclear program. It is not some token they are willing to part with, it is an integral part of their defense complex and increasingly, their society. They view it as an existential necessity and unless the U.S and South Korea are willing to wage total war there will be no disarmament. The force needed to take away the bomb is likely equivalent to the amount of force needed to topple the regime.
These strategic imbalances and misunderstandings make it impossible for the U.S to stop the DPRK nuclear program through current measures and has created a path toward continued nuclear weapons development in North Korea.
It’s time to admit that North Korea’s program cannot be stopped through non-kinetic means. The United States has nothing to offer the regime and they do not trust The U.S to keep promises. Nor do they care if their people starve. All of the pressure in the world is not going to make Kim humble himself and put a gun to his head, especially when he’s so close to a functional deterrent.
In short; the Kim dynasty has played their hand extraordinarily well and will likely achieve it’s deterrent. But, as Clausewitz said, one of the things that keeps war from it’s extremes is the fact that there is almost always a round two. This is next stage is what the United States needs to be preparing for, not doubling down on a failed policy with an unachievable goal.