North Korea has become an increasingly dangerous threat in the past few years. Its missile tests are now blatantly warlike, its latest missiles have the capacity to reach the U.S., and the conversation has changed from whether it has nuclear weapons to how many and what types. An observer might wonder how the situation got so out of hand, but what may not be apparent is that it was never in hand to begin with.
Since its creation in the aftermath of World War II, North Korea has been more or less openly antagonistic toward the U.S. and Europe, first as a puppet of the Soviet Union, then by itself as it gradually alienated its Communist allies. This alienation was in large part caused by then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s policy of “Juche,” or self-reliance. Il-sung hoped to cut ties with other nations and make North Korea self-sufficient, believing North Korea’s significant mineral resources would translate into a place of priority on the world stage. Economically, this strategy was a failure: when prices fell, the heavily resource-reliant North Korean economy tanked. xAs a political move, however, instating Juche had some positive effects; while it did lead to North Korea being surrounded by mostly unfriendly or neutral countries, the DPRK’s increasing political distance from the Soviet Union allowed it to escape the consequences of its collapse, and its obstinate rejection of close ties with other nations has made it very difficult to bargain with.
In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea still was not taken seriously; after all, it was barely feeding its citizens, so why should it be capable of creating nuclear weapons? Thus, other nations were lulled into a false sense of security even as they propped up the regime with humanitarian aid. Every so often however, North Korea’s militarism would become apparent, leading to a brief period of panic followed by sanctions and diplomatic talks. Inevitably, North Korea would agree to curtail its military program in exchange for relief from sanctions, and the rest of the world would heave a collective sigh of relief until the North proceeded to act as if the talks had never occurred. The idea of Juche did not permit real concession, and thus, no matter what had to be said to gain relief from sanctions, the intent was always to continue building up military might. In hindsight, it is surprising that this cycle of aggression and concession did not raise more red flags: after all, DPRK officials said time and again they would stop at nothing to acquire nuclear weapons, and only recanted when it was necessary to ease sanctions. However, the prevailing outside opinion at the time was that North Korea’s belligerent posturing was surely no more than that.
This mode of thinking received a jolt in 2006, when, just after receiving a warning to discontinue its nuclear program, North Korea detonated its first nuclear bomb underground. Even China, North Korea’s closest thing to an ally, denounced the test (North Korea had, in fact, only given China about twenty minutes’ notice ahead of time, which the Chinese used to inform the U.S.), but the U.N.’s solution was that same as it had always been: more economic sanctions. For a time, the U.S. pushed for a changes that would allow war on North Korea at the next provocation, but was unable to convince the other members of the U.N. In the wake of the sanctions, six-party talks among North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. resumed. At first, North Korea seemed contrite and agreed to shelve its nuclear tests, but, predictably, it reneged on the deal within a few years by conducting more test launches and detonations, leading the International Atomic Energy Agency to label it a nuclear power.
The following years saw a rapid rise in North Korea’s weapons capacity coinciding with a transfer of leadership from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, a younger and comparatively less tested statesman. Initially, many observers assumed the change in regime would lead to a softening of stance, or even a total dissolution of the North’s power, but in fact, the opposite has occurred; in his six years as Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un has tested more than twice as many missiles as both his predecessors combined and made multiple threats against the U.S. and South Korea. This alarming turn of events, coupled with Jong-un’s brinkmanship, has led many to conjecture that a major conflict may be just over the horizon. President Donald Trump has stated on multiple occasions that he is willing to attack North Korea if the situation calls for it, even as a preventative measure, and North Korea has threatened to nuke Guam if the U.S. attempts to curtail its ambitions. While that once may have seemed like an empty threat, the North’s dramatic increase in power and technology has been such that it’s likely it would have the ability to nuke Chicago within a year (North Korea’s missiles currently are thought to have the capability to reach Guam, although some analysts say the missiles would likely not be accurate enough when carrying a payload to be useful). North Korea could never emerge even close to victorious in such a war–they have between 20 and 60 warheads, according to most estimates, compared to the United States’s stockpile of around 4,000 warheads–but, regardless, many DPRK officials have stated that they are willing to risk annihilation if it means preserving their country from U.S. interference. This is in accordance with the ideal of self-determination that they have espoused for their whole history as a country. Many officials have also voiced doubts as to whether the U.S. has the appetite for such a risky, and deadly (most estimates put the death toll for an attack in the high hundreds of thousands to, possibly, millions) conflict.
But let us step back from the brink for a bit. While many, including the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, have made statements to the effect that “the time for words is over,” there is still much confusion on both sides as to how far the other is really willing to go, and North Korea has, in the past, been open to the thought of a closer relationship with the U.S.; this was especially evident in negotiations during the Clinton administration, when Special Advisor William Perry was sent to North Korea and succeeded in getting it to temporarily call off its missile program to conduct talks. In his 1999 report to Congress on the situation, Perry recommended a “two-path strategy” in which “the United States and its allies would…reduce pressures on the DPRK that it perceives as threatening,” suggesting that such a path might induce North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Now that those ambitions have come closer to fulfillment, it’s unlikely the same end could be accomplished, and whether a nuclear North Korea is palatable to the current administration remains to be seen, but there are still alternatives to a direct assault.
One such option is simply increasing sanctions even further, with the goal of completely crippling North Korea economically. Past attempts to do this have met with limited results. It is highly likely that, even if North Korea were to cooperate and call off its nuclear buildup, such a plan would only slow it down, as evidenced by its pattern of reneging on deals. In addition, now that North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons, such a plan becomes very risky; if the sanctions ever reach the point at which North Korea would actually be unable to endure as a nuclear power, it may just decide to take out a few other nations with it. This threat has been made both on and off the record by DPRK officials already.
A second, less aggressive option would be to attempt a “freeze for freeze” in which the U.S. and South Korea would agree to dial back on military exercises and buildup on the DMZ in exchange for a ceasing of the DPRK nuclear program. It is not clear that this would work, given North Korea’s long-standing antipathy toward the U.S. and South Korea, but in any case, it is unlikely that the Trump administration would ever go for such an option, especially after having returned North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism on November 20th, 2017.
If the U.S. does pursue military action against North Korea, it may not take the form of a “boots on the ground” invasion force, but rather an attempt to take out high ranking officials and Kim Jong-un in a precision strike. Such an effort, although it may sound cleaner and less dangerous, still carries a great deal of risk. Even if a strike were to be successful, such a targeted attack might cause the North Korean people to rally around the government and counterattack, and if such a strike were to fail, retaliation is virtually guaranteed. The only way a targeted strike could be safe would be if it absolutely destroyed North Korea’s capacity to launch any missiles, an unlikely proposition given that we don’t know where most of their missiles–or warheads, for that matter–are. These same standards apply to a traditional invasion or even a nuclear strike: if it does not leave North Korea completely incapacitated, the consequences will be catastrophic.
So, do we just have to sit back and let what happens happen? Well, while the situation is thorny, there are some practical steps that can be taken that are neither overly aggressive nor passive. First, there needs to be a shift in the U.S.’s perspective; put simply, we must confront the reality of a nuclear North Korea. Underestimating our adversary is exactly what has allowed the situation to reach this point. After that, steps such as implementing better missile defense systems for vulnerable areas and spying to find out where their warheads are and to give warning if they are to be used is just common sense.
Second, diplomacy with North Korea should be conducted at a more productive level than threat and counter-threat. On each side, there is great distrust and unfamiliarity with the other, and this breeds conflict. North Koreans are fed history that portrays the United States as a boogeyman that used chemical and biological weapons against them during the Korean War (which is not supported by evidence) and wants them to be a second-class country forever. Clearly, we need to work on our PR. The road to a certain level of mutual trust and understanding with North Korea may be long and difficult, or even impossible given the deep-seated animosity on both sides, but we have a duty to attempt it, and for that to happen there must be a conversation that consists of more than just: “if you hit me, I’ll hit you.”