When North Korea accelerated their missile and nuclear testing last year, it should have served as an opportunity for our political leaders, and those who would become our political leaders, to develop some strategy on the issue.
Unfortunately, that seems not to have happened and now the problem of what to do about North Korea is becoming more and more urgent all the time.
On March 7, North Korea shot four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Then on the 21st, the North Korean envoy to the Deputy Ambassador at North Korea’s mission to the UN issued a concerning statement. He asserted that North Korea’s regime has no fear of additional sanctions and also said that in they would “…continue with our full acceleration of the nuclear programs and missile programs.” And, then, last Wednesday, they conducted another missile launch, which appears to have failed. It is getting increasingly hard to ignore North Korea and pretend that it is not a potential threat to the U.S., but it is also extremely difficult to know what to do about it.
Part of the difficulty in determining a course of action on North Korea is that it first must be determined what we want the outcome to be. If the idea is simply to ensure that North Korea is not a threat to the U.S., that might require a different policy than if the idea is to help the people of North Korea. North Korea is ruled by Kim Jong-un, a despotic dictator who has no regard for human rights or human life and who has tortured, imprisoned, and starved large portions of his own population. So far, the U.S. and, basically, the rest of the world have more or less ignored the plight of the people of North Korea, but now that their problem is also our problem, hopefully, our actions can be guided by a desire not to just protect ourselves, but also to improve the lives of North Korea’s citizens. It might appear that the solution to both the U.S.’s problem and the North Korean people’s problem would be to remove Kim from power. But of course it’s not that simple or easy.
Virtually no one outside of North Korea has any access to Kim Jong-un or his inner circle, which means it would be extremely difficult to either assassinate him or push for some sort of coup. And if either of those things did happen there is no telling who would assume power and if they would be any better or worse than Kim. It may be hard to imagine someone being worse but at one point it was hoped Kim would be a less extreme leader than the previous dictator, his father Kim Jong-Il, but he has proven to be at least as dangerous to North Koreans and the rest of the world, possibly more so. There is no organized political opposition to Kim within North Korea, because to oppose him means death or imprisonment. The power vacuum created if he were removed would likely be filled by one of his generals, which may or may not improve the situation. Some kind of targeted military strike to take out Kim and his leaders creates basically the same problem but would also possibly kill a lot of North Korean citizens who are already the primary victims of Kim’s abuses. So a violent attempt to change leadership does not have a high probability of achieving results that are beneficial to either the U.S. or the people of North Korea.
The non-violent option of increased sanctions also feels like it will probably be futile as either a tool for stopping North Korea from developing weapons that can target the U.S. or as a means to get Kim’s regime to stop oppressing the people of North Korea. The U.S. and most of the rest of world have had high-level sanctions against North Korea for decades, but that hasn’t prevented the current situation. Right now the only sanctions left are to cut North Korea completely off from international financial markets. At best, this would probably have no effect. At worst, this may isolate the country further and push the regime towards more extremist behavior, which is what the statement from the envoy suggest. It could also further impoverish the citizenry.
There is, of course, the option of some kind of U.S.-led invasion, taking over the country until a democratic government can be established and then turning it back to the people of North Korea. Of course, our other two recent attempts at nation building through invasion, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have not exactly gone to plan and the original Korean War was also a lot more difficult than expected. So it will be very hard to justify putting American military men and women in harm’s way for what could end up being another protracted ground war with indeterminate success.
One further complicating factor of the U.S. formulating a policy response to North Korea’s recent aggressions is that the country with the best relationship with North Korea is China. If there is any hope of functional communication with Kim Jong-un’s regime, it will have to involve China. Regrettably, the U.S.’s relationship with China is not at its best at the moment. With luck, the need to address the growing threat of North Korean aggression will be a unifying cause for China and the U.S. and may encourage our governments to work together to find a peaceful solution to this and other potential conflicts in the region. Otherwise, the other diplomatic stumbling blocks between the U.S. and China may derail attempts at working together proactively to address the threat from North Korea.
Figuring out how to respond to North Korea’s latest aggression puts our leaders in an unenviable position; all the best plans for what to do seem to involve either a genie or a time machine. This would be a test for any administration, which is why past U.S. leaders have more or less passed the buck until now. Unfortunately, that is no longer an option and, hopefully, they will rise to the occasion and come up with a strategy soon, because, as the people of North Korea can attest, ignoring Kim Jong-un and hoping things get better is not a realistic option.
Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.